Something I’d rather make clear from the beginning: I am going to judge the game without mercy, and friends of that miserable piece of work might want to stop reading now. Besides, this review is full of spoilers. (Even when it’s hard to make Ascension more spoiled than it is anyway.)
Things that matter
Ascension fails in every respect. I don’t care much about the glaring bugs and the technical problems - 1000 other reviews whine about that - , neither am I amazed by graphics, sound effects, or the music. It’s a matter of taste to like or dislike the Gameplay.
That stuff isn’t important. In a role playing game, the plot, the dialogues, and the characters make the difference. I don’t know where to start when I want to criticize these things in Ultima IX!
The plot is full of inaccuracies - everywhere! One after the other, the older Ultimas are ignored or completely misunderstood. Did the designers think it’s enough to put some covers of the classic Ultimas on the walls to disguise their attempt to destroy, abuse, and make fun of the Ultima tradition with the last installment?
Britannia in 3D
Very often, people defend Ascension claiming it’s nice to wander through Britannia in real 3D for the first time. Sorry dudes, but this isn’t Britannia. It’s a simple, boring, and worthless fantasy world, created by the minds of designers who had to steal fans from “Tomb Raider” and changed the once plausible word into a small theme park.
A town inside of a volcano, a village with tree-houses and elevators (which you can activate by pressing a button!), and a magic city with green fog, which makes wonder if there’s a nuclear plant nearby. How original.
Additionally, this so-called “Britannia” is tiny like never before. Who could know that you can spit from Trinsic to Buccaneer’s Den? Or that Cove is smaller than my garden? When you eventually find Empath Abbey at the other side of the world, you finally vomit.
And if the Britannian continent wasn’t suddenly broken into 3 parts (ohhhh, what a great idea!), the tiny size of the world would be even more apparent.
If only the worldbuilders had failed! It becomes worse...
The 8 sacred Virtues
Let’s say there are problems in our society. How can you solve them? By starting a critical discussion with the people in order to work out suggested solutions, respecting the different points of view of all individuals? By trying to point out certain mistakes in society? (That’s always been the point of the Quest of the Avatar; showing people their faults. I agree with Batlin, although his interpretation was pessimistic.)
Ha, not quite correct! It’s sufficient to fight your way through a dark cave to find a rune stone. As soon as you’ve used it to carry out a magic ritual at a shrine, everyone is happy again. (You also need another magic item, which you usually get after some idiot has realized that anti-virtue isn’t virtue.) Repeat this part 8 times, and you’ve beaten the plot of Ascension. (Reading some reviewers’ comments, like “great plot, but many bugs”, seriously makes me wonder how those people would describe a “bad” plot!)
Once you have cleansed the 8 shrines, the entire people of Britannia yet again brainlessly follows their spiritual leader. Pathetic.
The plot, by the way, isn’t only terribly weak, it’s also totally linear, which leads to a complete lack of dialogue options for the player most of the time, so that the Avatar starts speaking without any chance of interaction by the player. Pathetic as well.
So, the world and the plot is crap; as a consequence, the most important characters in the game are crappy, too:
The Avatar: while he was a character created by the player, with no fixed gender or race in the past, he has become a blonde member of the master race by now, perfect and infallible. The Guardian: the classic mighty villain, who fails to stop the hero at one of the 1000 opportunities by reasons unknown. Raven: the criminal who is guided back onto the path of virtue by the Avatar and sleeps with him as a reward if you click the proper dialogue options. Blackthorn: the Sheriff of Nottingham; Poor Blackthorn: Lord British should have put him to death at the end of Ultima 5 to spare him and the players his role in Ascension! And finally: Lord British, the senile old fool who has no clue about anything.
Talking about realism
This world doesn’t feel lively. The people don’t have the slightest clue what happens in other towns, the NPC schedules were canned, and one-liner NPCs constantly remind you that they are just decoration with lines like “Nice weather today”. This so-called “Role playing game” truly demonstrates how 3D graphics don’t guarantee a game world that feels dynamic and lively; it rather seems that the opposite is true. Ultima 5 had ugly block graphics, but Britannia was a complex world of immersion back in those times.
Ascension is full of bad inconsistencies, which make it impossible for me to accept it as a real Ultima, be it official or not. Each low point in the game is followed by an even lower point. Gwenno, who looks younger than two decades ago and who doesn’t tell us anything about Serpent Isle, is harmless compared to the Gargoyle Queen or the resurrection of Dupre. As if the actual game weren’t weak and bad enough, the cheesiest credits music ever comes out of the speakers at the ending and ensures that Ascension is a pain until the very last second.
Let’s sum it up: Ultima Ascension isn’t just a disappointment, but also an atrocity towards the fans, who waited for a masterpiece all those years and were rewarded with this worthless action adventure. (Much potential has been wasted because of an apparently clueless marketing department; it’s getting obvious when you look at all the unused maps that allow you to wander in a large mountain in order to reach Cove.)
Everything went wrong with that game. Too bad. As far as I am concerned, Ultima stopped with Part 8. (Well, whoever believed it could only get better after Pagan, was set right, it seems.) Nevertheless, I am still sure there will be a real Ultima 9 some day.