Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Having just upgraded DOSBox to version 0.71 the big question loomed: 'which game to test it out?'. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss got the job, hence this review, and it behaved almost to perfection.
Well there was a slight hiccough on installation when the programme halted, reporting problems with the DVD Drive, which was irrelevant because I wasn't even using it. Curious ... simply placing a disk, any disk, in the drive solved the problem. I should point out here that for this review I used the double pack version with Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, published by Electronic Arts under the CD ROM Classics series. Another player, using another release, didn't report this idiosyncrasy.
After that the game installed and ran like a dream, with just two more stumbles: one minor, one more problematic, but not insurmountable. The minor one was the regular alert: 'Internal error - problems in object list' that appeared almost every move between levels. It alarmed me the first time but when nothing seemed to be amiss I just ignored it from then on with no repercussions whatsoever. The other, bigger hitch concerned 'reading' a clue on a gravestone in the gameworld, it was impossible — either cheating or laboriously working out the answer by trial and error was the only way forward. I won't say which solution I opted for, but the answer is readily available on the net, and it may be that another graphics card would come to the rescue here.
I first played Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss a long time ago now when it was released in the early 90s. I enjoyed it then and I had quite a bit of fun this time around. The graphics are dated, of course, especially in close up everything dissolves into pixels, but it runs just fine in first person perspective with your single character moving smoothly through the free scrolling environment. It was quite impressive for its time with some good features such as a comprehensive mapping system that you can write to, although it lacks a journal so it's essential to keep careful notes so you know what you're doing. Also, the gameworld itself occupies only about 1/3 of the screen, which is a bit small, but you forget about this after a while.
It's both keyboard and mouse driven — take your pick, although the mouse is essential for some actions. First up, of course, is character creation and it's very quick with just a few simple choices: gender, left or right handed, class, a couple of skills then, finally, standard or easy mode, before you pick a portrait and name your character.
Really, the combat in The Stygian Abyss isn't that sophisticated so it doesn't much matter which mode of difficulty you choose. It's in real time, but after the first level where you might die a few times, fighting is relatively easy if you build up your weapon skills. In fact building weapon skills is a good idea for all classes including magic users who must collect rune stones to cast spells. They are kept in a special bag. To cast a spell, first open the magic bag, select the correct stones to send them to your 'Rune Shelf' then click on it to cast the spell. Good fun, especially collecting the rune stones, but not so simple for spellcasting in the heat of combat. It's best to buff at a distance and prepare the offensive spell you're likely to use before going into battle, maybe learn one other to hastily prepare, and then back up your magic prowess with good weapon skills.
Still fighting isn't really at the heart of The Stygian Abyss, the fun is in the exploration, in following the story and solving puzzles, in collecting up loads of goodies, and in cracking the 8 level maze. The Stygian Abyss is a prison and you have landed there, accused of the kidnapping Baron Almric's daughter. As you progress you'll learn the history of the abyss and face a much bigger task than you initially bargained for.
The challenge is in negotiating with the various abyss inhabitants. Some need careful handling to gain their friendship, money talks sometimes. Some have a task for you, some will trade items, and yet others have useful information or items to see you through. There are passwords or combinations to learn, keys and other items to find, dials to turn, levers to pull, and secret ways to uncover, as simply getting into different areas can take some working out. It's also extremely useful to learn the Lizard language and watch out for books and scrolls containing mantras for praying at the various shrines to improve your skills.
Of course there are abyss dwellers that are non negotiable, the sword is the only language they understand ... spiders, skeletons, slugs, ghosts, gazers, golems, and more. Although the fighting is by no means constant and you can avoid a lot of it if that's your style of play.
There are oodles of things to find: clues, food, weapons, armour, and other riches, so much that you'll have to leave heaps behind. Your weapons and armour will get damaged, and they'll disintegrate if you don't keep them in good repair. You can do that yourself if you build up your 'repair' skill, and there's a list of other skills related to different weapons and to such things as 'search', 'swimming', 'sneak', 'mana', 'casting', 'lore' etc. Lore is very useful to identify magical items even though you can get them identified for a price — and money is no obstacle.
If you're in the mood for a good dose of nostalgia, or if you'd like to take a look back at a golden oldie rpg, then fire up Utima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. It's still lots of fun opening every door and crossing every chasm to fill in every inch of the maps and make it to your final destination.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2007.
All rights reserved.
Required: 386SX, 386 or 100% compatible PC system, 2MB RAM, MS-DOS, 570,000 bytes conventional memory free, CD-ROM drive, hard drive, keyboard, Microsoft compatible mouse. Recommended: sound card (supports SoundBlaster or 100% compatible sound board), double speed CD-ROM drive.
Previously available on floppy disk.