I stated in my opening thoughts for Ultima II that I viewed the game as the series equivalent of the book of Leviticus - the first major potential stumbling block for anybody trying to proceed through canon in order. (Numbers is also an apt comparison. Any of the last three books of the Pentateuch, really, there's something in there for everyone to trip over.) While I still think the metaphor holds a decent amount of water, now that I've played it right off the tail end of Ultima I and am preparing to go into Ultima III, it's become fairly evident to me that more than anything else, Ultima II is a transition stage, the 'awkward adolescent' of the series, trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be and throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks in order to do so. I feel that's a good deal of why it feels so disjointed as compared to its predecessor and sequel - it's trying to do everything at once because the series hasn't sorted out exactly where it's going yet. It's straddling the middle between the sandboxy open feel of Ultima I and the streamlined seriousness that Ultima III begins to demonstrate, trying out different things and seeing what works for it.
|A sentiment I couldn't help but feel fairly often.|
|Exploration was fun, if mostly fruitless in the end.|
|Lots of little nooks and crannies to poke around.|
But for all of the issues, Ultima II has its high points. The time gates are the first iteration of a fast-travel system in the series, and getting the hang of how they function and how best to make use of them was a fun problem to wrap my head around. There's actually some sembleance of conversation in this game, townsfolk providing clues and hints as to how to progress in the game - and even if a lot of them are just fluff, self-referential fourth-wall-breaking, or pop-culture reference (which used to bother me, but actually kind of makes sense since the game purportedly takes place on Earth), it provides some actual flavor to the towns, takes one step closer to feeling like a living world populated by characters rather than just pixels, plot devices, and mechanics. The towns themselves, though limited in number, feel unique, and poking around Shadowguard led my overactive imagination to some gleefully unsettling moments - the museum in which there's an example of not just every enemy, but every brand of citizen present was eerie indeed. There's reason to explore, if only to finding something out of the ordinary and interesting.
|It's a little disconcerting these are right by each other...|
As far as its place in the Grand Ultima Story, that's hard to say. It's probably the most glossed-over game in the series besides the semi-canon Akalabeth prologue. I do think that it does set up a very nice pattern of retaliation, though - the fact that events do lead to consequences that the Stranger-slash-Avatar has to deal with. It's something of an overarching theme of the series as a whole, whether it was intentional or not - practically every game after the first deals with some sort of after-effect of the previous games, and that's begun here in Ultima II. We're still in the opening chapters of the series, but it's already establishing precedent of needing to deal with the repercussions of actions taken, for better or worse. And for that, even if it gets mostly hurried over in the rest of the Ultima canon, I think Ultima II is a rather pivotal point in the story of Ultima.
Now that Minax is dealt with, I can turn my sights to the Island of Fire looming on the horizon. I'm currently working my way through the manuals (and boy am I going to have a lot to say on them!) and trying to plan out my party of four, so it may be a bit before I lay out my opening thoughts on Ultima III. But Exodus won't wait for me long, I'm sure... and I look forward to the chance to face the beast.