While it may not look like it now, for those of us who played it in its first iteration in 1981, Ultima was a revelation. Among other things, it was the first video game to come replete with a combination of interactive story, interactive characters, interactive terrain and interactive baddies. In other words, it was the first video game to have a setting that could accurately be described as a gameworld. And that’s not all. It also provided players with a graphically represented in-game avatar that could be nurtured, using a rudimentary RPG system, from cloth-bound weakling to plate-clad badass. In short, game dev extraordinaire, Richard Garriott’s Ultima was both the first open-world RPG and the first action RPG, as it was one of the first real CRPGs. For those of us lucky enough to be among the first to play this seminal first, the experience was unprecedented, even transcendental. While it may look to contemporary eyes like a flat gameworld comprised of simple 2D sprites, in 1981 it felt like you were moving through a living tapestry.
It’s no small wonder then that a newbie game developer of a certain age might, thirty four years later, make his first game a homage to this trailblazing classic. Such is the case with Flat Black Film’s Lowlander. As homage, it accurately captures the look and feel of Ultimas I and II, particularly Ultima II, which it is designed after. The bigger question that inevitably comes up with a game like Lowlander is to what degree does Ultima II-style gameplay hold-up in the era of neurojacking and immersive design?
To answer this, I have to remind you that this is a clone of one of the great-grand daddies of computer role-playing games, a title that became popular a handful of years after home consoles featuring 3 different versions of Pong were considered groundbreaking. Production-wise it’s rudimentary to say the least, but despite the implicit drawbacks in terms of immersion, Lowlander is hands down fun to play. Like Lord British (Richard Garriott) did in days of Yore, Flat Black Film’s does a lot with a little.
You move the static icon that represents your avatar over a persistent world (in 1981 that meant that if you continue in one direction on a game map, you eventually wind up where you started ) comprised of 2D sprites, scratching off Fed Ex quests and battling evil as you explore new lands and a host of towns, dungeons and castles. Interaction is as basic as it gets in an RPG, with most NPC’s offering nothing more than blithe one-liners or inanities, much in the spirit of *Iolo the Bard’s immortal: “Ho eyo he hum.”
And so it turns out, if you strip a well-balanced open-world RPG of most of its eye and ear candy, as well as the trappings of a complex narrative, it can still be a blast to play. In particular, besting Lowlander’s initial survival hump in the early game is compellingly difficult. Also, leveling up and gaining extra adventuring stuff is satisfying, and Flat Black Film’s does a superb job of mixing up the quests and locales as well as creating a number of simple, yet cool and nuanced dungeon and terrain maps.
And yet, the game’s simplicity combined with the repetitive nature of its quests may for some grow a little tedious. After numerous hours of gameplay, I eventually found myself looking forward to Lowlander’s conclusion so I could get back to my KOTOR game, but for this reviewer those moments were the exception. If anything, it’s a testament to Lowlander’s sound design paradigm that in spite of its inherent shortcomings, the game is liable to keep even veteran RPG fans tapping away on their devices for the eight or so hours it takes to complete the game.
And yet, one can’t help but wonder when playing an abstracted version of a tried and true genre or, as here , a straight-up clone of an old classic, how much better it could have been if certain key elements were expanded upon. If Lowlander, for example, had featured a more interactive dialogue system and a more complex speculative fiction story; or if Flat Black Film’s had built a multi-tiered RPG leveling system and paired it with a turn-based tactical or maybe a rhythm-based combat system. Then the stripped down aspects of Lowlander might vibe like a painter’s limited palette, compelling players to engage with what the game does offer on a deeper level. To be fair, Lowlander has no such aspirations nor does it need them to succeed. Would it be cool if a sequel moved the game in a new direction? No doubt it would.
As it is, however, the stripped down aspect of this Ultima II clone makes the game move along at a speedy clip, which works perfectly for a title like this. If, however, a big part of the reason you game is for the latest bells and whistles, you might be disappointed by Lowlander’s lack of contemporary production values. That said, RPG fans who play for the gameplay will find Lowlander’s exploration, leveling and baddie offing both compelling and a lot of fun. Considering that you can enjoy the whole package for less than the price of a cup of Joe that does come with all the contemporary bells and whistles, it’s a sweet deal.
*Iolo the Bard was an Ultima franchise regular, purportedly based on a close friend of Garriott’s, who was interestingly enough, a bowyer by trade. The I-man first appeared in Ultima I as essentially a white X, who popped around the screen saying: “Ho eyo he hum”, of all things.
It is Hardcore?
In spite of a number of limitations inherent to the game it faithfully emulates, Lowlander remains a genuinely engaging and amusing Ultima II clone. Nostalgic Ultima fans should tack on another star.