And now for something a little different.
One of the trademarks of the Ultima series is the fact it uses a new engine for each main entry in the series. Some are less visibly dramatic than others (compare the difference in look and feel between Ultimas IV and V, as opposed to those between V and VI), but every numbered entry used a new engine and pushed it to its limits. That didn't keep those engines from being reused, however - Ultima VII's was re-used for Serpent Isle, and Ultima VIII's would be refined and reused for Crusader. The practice of using an existing engine to power an entirely new game started here, though, with Savage Empire's use of Ultima VI's engine to weave a pulp fiction tale of a lost valley.
|The opening credit scroll is very nicely done.|
Released in 1990, mere months after Ultima VI itself, Savage Empire was the first in a sadly short-lived spin-off series, giving the Avatar further adventures outside of Britannia. While having little to do with the main series, being only tangentially related at best, they're referenced enough by other games that it's fair to accept them as canonical. This first entry transplants the Avatar from the medieval-esque world of Britannia into the Lost World-style Valley of Eodon, populated with numerous and varied tribes, prehistoric beasts, and dinosaurs.
My previous experience with Savage Empire isn't particularly extensive. I've mentioned before the problems that I've had in the past with Ultima VI's engine, and the fact Savage Empire is basically that with a new coat of paint didn't help with my enjoyment. In addition, while it's neat to see the series' take on other genres, I'm not overly fond with the lost world-type stories. I mean sure, I had something of an interest in dinosaurs when I was a kid, but as a genre... eh. I'm not sure why it's never really clicked that well with me - and that's not to say that I don't enjoy a well-told story in that style either - but that coupled with the fact that steampunk very much is a genre I like, and, well, I always found myself favoring Martian Dreams over Savage Empire when I got the hankering to give the Worlds of Ultima games a whirl. But while the game itself hasn't held as much interest for me as compared to its subsequent entry - the manual.
Oh man, the manual.
|Virtue test time! Again!|
Savage Empire's manual probably stands rather high on the list of utterly unique approaches for a game manual, if not topping it outright. Rather than simply lay out the facts, not only does the manual follow the grand Ultima tradition of doing so in an in-universe fashion, it does so by means of presenting it as a pulp adventure magazine that wouldn't be out of place in the era the game is attempting to evoke. And while the stars of the show are the introduction of the backstory as the first part of a serial penned by the Avatar himself (which incidentally is the source for my personal headcanon that the Avatar makes his living between adventures by publishing tales of them), and Dr. Rafkin's descriptions of Eodon's people, flora, and fauna, it's in the detail work that the manual really shines. From hints cleverly disguised in the Letters to the Editor to throwing the developers into a rather amusingly written expedition to advertisements for Jimmy Malone's notebooks and Savage Empire T-shirts (the latter of which actually existed), the manual, as any good manual should, sets the tone and mood of the game excellently. I pored over it gleefully as I prepared to fire up the game, suppressing squeals of glee at the little linguistic tidbits Rafkin delivers on the language of Eodon and the dialects of the varying tribes. (Because of course I would.) And I can't help but bring attention to the copyright information right on the table of contents page: "Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited, and punishable by sending a Tyrannosaurus Rex to eat your mother... do people really read this fine print?"
Yes, author of said fine print. Some people do, and they are amused.
Last order of business was character creation, and I'll admit it was nice to take another virtue quiz of sorts, albeit much abbreviated and modified slightly to stick with the theme. Only three questions this time around, and they're phrased to feel more 'tribal' than medieval, but it's good to see that the game continues the tradition of basing initial parameters for the player character by a series of moral dilemmas. Presented as a dream sequence that may not actually be dream, Intanya says he is working to heal you, but needs to know your spirit in order to do so. He asks three questions - in Aric's case, he first asked whether he would disobey a chief's directive to fight alongside his companions, and he most certainly would. Next he asked about a warrior who borrowed another's spear, then did not return it. Upon finding said warrior's own misplaced spear, Aric chose to give it to the one owed the spear. And when forced to decide whether to uphold an oath and protect his chief or break it and honestly reveal him as a murderer, he chose the latter option.
So was Aric (and I with him) dropped into the Valley of Eodon, and so does a new adventure begin...