Over the years I have played many, many (MANY) CRPGs and very few of them evoked anything close to the reaction I had playing Ultima Underworld 1: The Stygian Abyss. I was already enamored of videogames when I saw it being demoed at a Waldensoftware in 92 but UU was so far beyond anything I’d ever seen or experienced that I (like many others) have some very specific feelings and emotions tied up with playing the game, feelings of discovery, and fear, and joy that are much more than simple nostalgia. The same thing goes for other Ultima titles, especially 7.
There have, however, been some games that at least came close to giving me those same feelings. I hope others may find the suggestions helpful as we fill this inexorable stretch of time before UA is completed. I sincerely hope this list may help others find games they may enjoy, and also that fellow UU fans can add to this list with games I may have forgot or never played.
Arx Fatalis : The obvious one (other than System Shock 1 and 2, which are too obvious to list). Developed by Arkane Studios (who have gone on to be reasonably successful with the excellent Dishonored and the slightly less excellent Dark Messiah of Might and Magic), Arx Fatalis was the reputedly the result of EA declining Arkane’s request to make a third Ultima Underworld (at the time EA was squeezing Ultima Online for all it had left and had recently killed Ultima Online 2 because… profit?). Instead Arkane developed this obvious love letter to UU, a first person fantasy dungeon crawler with a similar setting, full inventory, NPCs to talk to, a complicated magic system, and a dynamic plot. Getting it to work properly in higher resolutions can be difficult but the game is still very playable on PC and also released on the original XBOX (if anyone but me still has one of those). Probably the closest thing to UU in the last 15 years and a decent game, if imperfect…
Driftmoon : a top down RPG clearly inspired and styled after Ultima 7, Driftmoon is a charming, enjoyable (if short) game. It takes place in an enchanted world of talking animals and ancient magic and is a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by ‘grimdark’ settings like Dragon Age, Diablo, or just semi-realistic ones like The Elder Scrolls. Driftmoon has hermit crab sea captains and panther queens; it’s a throwback to the days fantasy didn’t necessarily mean orcs and elves and gritty apocalyptic wars. In tone I would compare maybe to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, etc): the situation is dire but the characters are not jaded and grim. Also, the game has a number of obvious shout-outs and references to the Ultima games which made me smile and even tear up once or twice.
King’s Field series : A FirstPerson ARPG from Japan, King’s Field was one of the old ‘big box’ Playstaion 1 games, though it has had iterations up through PS2 and PS3. King’s Field offers firstperson dungeon crawling (and overland exploration) in a depressing dark fantasy world. The games are hard as hell, not just because of the less than optimal interface (or how goddamn slow you move), but by design. As such the game manages to be genuinely frightening and exploration can be terrifying. The graphics are incredibly crude for the first two games (early PS1 3D, grainy and muddy with awful draw distance… worse than sprites, imo), but later iterations have much better graphics. I should note that this game was developed by From Software, who has recently achieved some fame and notoriety for a little game some of you may have heard of called Dark Souls… For fans of that game, you can see the roots of that depressing, desolate environment in King’s Field. The game is too dated (and hard and slow) for me to honestly recommend but the feel is similar to the most harrowing moments of Ultima Underworld.
Albion : Albion is a somewhat rare and unique science fiction RPG from the late 90’s. It’s interface is similar to a more modern Ultima 7 and it plays similarly. A couple things set it apart from other similar games: the graphics are simply gorgeous, the dialog and game text is actually very good, the characters are clearly defined, and the story is (much like the Ultima games) very much about the importance of compassion and kindness. I don’t want to ruin anything on the off chance anyone plays it but the game is amazing and deserves to be remembered; unfortunately it is not available anywhere other than Ebay or, ahem, certain websites that trade in games of dubious copyright. The CD version also has awesome music and speech.
Outcast : another old PC game from the late 90s, Outcast was the unfortunate victim (in my opinion) of technological progress: it was a software rendered voxel-based 3D game that came out riiiight before 3D accelerator cards became available. On the common hardware of the time the game was ugly and slow and even at its best it was no match for the 3D graphics of the new ‘accelerated’ crowd (Tomb Raider, Turok, etc). Regardless, Outcast is an amazing semi-openworld adventure RPG where you play a human explorer that has come to an alien planet. The gameworld is huge, the interface is surprisingly intuitive, the writing is fun and interesting, and the game gives you two (TWO!) personal teleporters pretty much right off the bat that you can use when and wherever you want (and pickup and put somewhere else). The freedom, exploration, and messianic aspects of the game always reminded me of Ultima, that ‘stranger in a strange land’ vibe, which this game also shares with Albion. Also the game suffered from terrible cover art, that late 90s European CG that looks all lumpy and horrifying… Anyway, this one is readily available on GOG.
Divine Divinity : this game is like a weird hybrid of Ultima 7 and, say, Diablo. It’s easy to dismiss as just another generic ARPG (and in some ways it is), but it has a full inventory system, magic items that do cool things, and you can manipulate the environment, ie move boxes to find secrets, move pillows to find keys, etc. Environmental interactivity has always been one of my favorite aspects of later Ultima games, something most traditional RPGs (such as the Infinity Engine games or Bioware games in general) don’t offer; bless the Elder Scrolls and new Fallout games for having at least some interactivity. There’s nothing quite like moving a barrel and finding that key to the big gleaming chest… anyway, Divine Divinity may be slightly derivative but it does enough stuff well to stand out, and again, inventory management and environmental interaction put this one above other contenders. There is a sequel, Beyond Divinity (which I barely played but seemed very similar), a… other sequel, Divinity 2 which seems to have many subtitles and is totally different, and the excellent turnbased strategy game prequel that came out this year Divinity: Original Sin (which actually makes a number of references to the first game which I thought was cool).
Delver : a firstperson roguelike RPG that is both reminiscent of UU (especially the wall sprites and such) and completely, absolutely nothing like UU (random dungeons are pretty much the opposite of UU’s carefully crafted maps). Also the art style for the enemies is a weird, cutesy, almost JRPG sprite design that I do not care for at all. The game is early access and worth a look but I am not endorsing it like the games above.
Barony : pretty much the same thing as Delver but sans JRPG sprites. There’s a free demo on indiedb.com.
Again, please post any other similar games, or games that gave you that particular type of enjoyment you associate with UU or the Ultima games! I left off things like Grimrock or Elminage Gothic because those are more like Eye of the Beholder/Dungeon Master to me at least; UU set itself apart by having realistic environmental navigation as opposed to the tile-based movement of those games.