My initial reaction is combat was very tactical. However, that delusion quickly fell apart. The AI has the advantage with the ability to attack diagonally, and the only way to even the odds is to take advantage of their attack pattern. Many battles are easily finished by lining the enemies up, and taking them out one at a time from one side.
Ranged weapons are significantly better than melee ones. Damage is never reduced as armor is only used to calculate evasion. The difficulty takes giant leaps quickly if characters are leveled as soon as possible, and some encounters can mean instant death for the wrong party.
Fighting becomes a chore with very little variation. In fact, while going through the last cave I noticed that if I fought the same enemy with the same pattern--choosing the same actions--then my characters would do exactly the same damage, miss at exactly the same times, and the enemy would do the same. Everything was preplanned, and would only change if I changed my attacks. Enemy differences are slight with many being re-skinned versions of each other. The rewards for killing any enemy are one chest worth the same gold (30 - 99). Experience points don't track well with difficulty, and combat itself eventually gives no worthy rewards.
|A.k.a. Dragon #5|
Character combinations are staggering with a party of four, 11 professions, and 5 races. Yet, when we delve deeper, we see that there aren't many differences. Races only define the stat maximums for each character, and don't have any bearing on how the character looks. Character appearance is entirely based on their profession, and I do mean entirely. There's no choice for gender, it's assigned by profession (e.g. paladins are all female). Weapons and armor aren't reflected on the characters either. There are portraits of each character, but again, it's unique by profession only.
Stat increases are available later in the game. While having a fuzzy thief is interesting, an elf thief is always obviously better due to a better strength max. As fun as a dwarf wizard might be to role-play, he's at a distinct disadvantage. Though, none of that matters much since the best weapon and armor (mystic sword and armor) are useable by everyone, effectively removing the difference between a fighter, barbarian, or even cleric (except the cleric also has magic). All characters have a max level of 25, which results in the same max HP. By the end the differences between each class blur to such a point that there are only those that have magic and those that don't.
One of the most aggravating aspects of controlling the characters is when navigating the ship. The game takes the wind direction into account, so if you're going against the wind then movement slows to a crawl. While realistic, it's annoying to press the direction and only move 2 seconds later.
|Each profession is drawn with nice iconic detail|
There aren't any big puzzles, and only some slight riddles that are probably more attributable to the poor translation and cutting of text than on a desire to only hint at the answer. The Time Lord that gives the "hint" for the final challenge tells you exactly what to do. Many of the other hints require at least a bit more thought, such as the town of Dawn only showing up at two new moons. The moon gates provide an interesting experiment, which I've not see in any other games.
Some side quests are available, but without doing them, the difficulty of the game shoots quickly towards impossible. Buying stats, getting the mystic gear, giving flowers to Sherry, finding the Time Lord, and many other things are not exactly necessary to beat the game, but forgoing those make it that much harder to reach and defeat Exodus. The main quest becomes fairly obvious, as many NPCs mention needing the marks and horn, but the hint of the cards only came from the fortune teller as far as I can tell. This makes it a little obscure since those are necessary to seal away Exodus.
|Final Challenge: "I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 24"|
Involvement in the story stops after choosing the characters. It's often hard to tell the difference between random NPCs, and dialogue that is of note. There are two menu options to unlock, Pray and Bribe; however, it's not obvious when these are received, and Bribe requires speaking to a random NPC twice (one that doesn't say anything of interest the first time). Understanding what the NPCs are trying to say through broken English often tries my patience. How am I to know when I should follow up questioning an NPC? Why not give me all the dialogue at once? It's interesting for dialogue to change after significant events, but having to unlock it by repeatedly speaking to NPCs is inane.
The world is filled with enough hints to avoid getting lost, but sometimes these are so cryptic that it takes a few reads to fully understand what a random message in a cave is supposed to mean. It's difficult to feel immersed in the game when the goals aren't understandable; I knew I need to get the marks, but I had no idea why. I lucked upon--more than figured out how to get--the silver horn, which is an essential item.
|I must suffer wiht [sic] your crines [sic] against humanity!|
Most items (called tools) are relegated to stores. Only the picks are not bought, but one is still located in a store. The most powerful weapon and armor are found (using the picks), and not purchased. Every other chest is just gold, mainly used to increase each character's stats. Gold is never excessively abundant, and by the time I bought everything it was time to end the game. In fact, it's necessary to continuously search for gold, as the amount necessary to purchase everything is excessive. Inventory items stack, and there's a enough room to hold everything, which is a first.
The marks, cards, and flower are tracked on the status screen, so knowing once you've collected everything is as easy as looking at each character. There isn't a lot here to collect though. About the only other thing to get is a group of horses. That's it, nothing more. Detailed information is missing for weapons. Although it is helpful that the store will warn you if a character can't use a weapon or armor you're about to purchase, there only indication a weapon is better is by the price.
|The first--and only--interesting artifact|
Ultima: Exodus offers the most open world yet while maintaining some barriers for later content. Once the ship is obtained the world again opens up, and really shows just how small it is. The continent of Sosaria does offer an interesting feature in the moon gates that allow early travel to some islands, and are the only way to access a couple locations. Exploring the caves is a necessity, and there's a lot of cave to look through. If you're a mapping fiend, then you'll be happy exploring all eight levels in each cave. Luckily if you're not, there are gems that will display the map.
The graphics are good for an NES game. Some tiles are rather bland, but how interesting are plains to draw in 8-bit? The character portraits are the most detailed visual to find here. Music is used throughout to great effect, except the title screen; that music is just grating. It's good fun searching for the marks in the caves.
The amount of differences between caves and towns are minimal. Caves all share the same graphics. Towns use the same tiles, but there are some interesting layouts like Death Gultch that is hidden in a mountainous maze. Gems will show the maps for Sosaria and Ambrosia as well as the caves; however, the over-world and Ambrosia maps are hardly viewable, and while caves offer the best maps, they'll train you to only pay attention to the '?' squares.
|If you look close, you can see the Time Lord (hint: not a '?')|
Final Rating: 18 (30%)
There's some untapped potential (isn't there some in all games) here that wants to shine through. While some can be blamed on porting to the NES, much of it is more design decisions that don't seem to have gone through play testing. Fighting is slow, and grinding gold is necessary, both of which add unnecessary hours to the game. I guess the game couldn't boast 100 hours of play time without them though.
Some of my time with the game was enjoyable, but my opinion is this game is skippable without missing much. We'll see how the sequel does when we get to that. Fans of the game do exist, but many acknowledge the flaws and try to mitigate them by suggesting the creation of multiple parties (one to level up and get the boat, and another to stay low level and explore).
One gamer has even modded the game in hopes of making it more playable. So, if you have the urge to play this game again, maybe it'd be better to try a mod like the one Jeff Ludwig has created: A New Exodus. I haven't tried it myself, so if you do, I'd like to hear about it. I'm interested in knowing how it is, but don't have the time to check it out. Maybe in the future.