Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is a first-person CRPG that is credited as the first of its kind to feature free-roaming movement. Prior to its innovations, other titles such as Westwood/SSI's Eye of the Beholder series and FTL Games' Dungeon Master helped to advance the use of the first-person CRPG as a viable and compelling direction in which to take the genre. Dungeon Master, in particular, was quoted by designer Paul Neurath as a source of inspiration for the development of the game.
Inspired by his work on Space Rogue, Neurath then set out to create a 3D engine that would enable him to fulfill his vision of a CRPG that would allow him to bring "even more immediacy than Dungeon Master". After creating a high level design document for the project and assembling a team of young programmers, some of whom were MIT grads, the team set out to create an engine and a company under the name of Blue Sky Productions. Although the engine was crude, they eventually managed to progress in their development far enough to prototype a dungeon setting rendered with texture mapping.
As rough as it was, the prototype soon caught the attention of many within the industry. Eventually, it was shopped to a number of publishers and a license agreement was soon signed with Origin Systems. Origin proposed that the engine be used to leverage the Ultima brand which Neurath and his team agreed with paving the way for what would become Ultima Underworld. They would advance $30,000 for the development of the game, although costs would escalate to over $400,000, partly paid for by Neurath's royalties from Space Rogue and an investment from fellow collaborator, Ned Lerner. Cost cutting measures were also undertaken such as buying cheap office blinds at K-Mart.
Game development took place in 1990 and 1991 under Neurath and his team at Blue Sky Productions (later to be renamed as Looking Glass Studios). Origin's Richard Garriott was reportedly excited about the concept and enthusiastically supported the project and the implementation of Ultima lore within its gameplay. Warren Spector was brought in as a producer towards the end and was instrumental in maintaining Origin's interest in the title.
Upon release, the game was not a commercial success in an immediate sense which caused Origin to reduce its marketing support. However, word of mouth, positive reviews, and its revolutionary features would eventually bring it sales of more than 500,000 copies. It, along with System Shock and Thief, would prove to be among the most instrumental titles of the CRPG genre's history cited by many designers from Ken Levine (Bioshock) to Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War, Unreal Tournament) as a source of inspiration.
Ultima Underworld was packaged with a variety of materials aimed at expanding the immersion of the game for both veterans of the Ultima series and newcomers. A manual written as a journal penned by Sir Cabirus' scribe, Corby, was among the documentation included with the game and was filled with the flavor of the series. It described many of the beasts within the game, its magic system, what newcomers could expect in the Stygian Abyss, and the reason for creating a colony within its depths.
The game takes place within the Stygian Abyss, a deep network of caves and caverns beneath the Isle of the Avatar which had been the scene of many of the series' greatest quests. The Isle was so named because of the Avatar's involvement with the events surrounding it. It was from there that the Avatar had retrieved the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and had rescued Lord British from the grasp of the usurper, Lord Blackthorne. With the retrieval of the Codex, however, it had also set off many disturbances across the Isle such as reawakening the volcano that formed its heart, but the island remained a place of pilgrimage and peace.
Sir Cabirus sought to found one more town to compliment those dedicated to the eight virtues. The town would be the place where all Eight Virtues could be bound together in a unified whole and with that in mind, petitioned Lord British for the right to do so on the Isle of the Avatar within the Stygian Abyss itself. There, amidst the former grounds of evil, a place of great virtue would rise up from its depths.
It would also be a place where even the creatures of the mountains, woods, and swamps would be a part of a civilized community dedicated to the Way of the Avatar. Sir Cabirus and his followers, once they were given permission, quickly made their way to the Isle of the Avatar to begin their work. A village was established on the surface before the gate to the Stygian Abyss to act as a go-between for the colony and the rest of Britannia. Within the colony soon settled Knights, Mountain-folk, Seers, Lizardmen, Goblins, and even Trolls.
For a time, the colony lived in peace and was a great success with so many different races and creeds living within its walls. Goblins that would have killed other tribes lived beside each other in peace. Trolls accepted the Way of the Avatar as Seers from Moonstone, Knights from Jhelom, and Lizardmen strove to make Sir Cabirus' vision real. However, the utopian ideal would not last past his untimely death. With his passing, old suspicions and hatreds welled up from within the ranks of each part of the community sowing the discord that would ultimately doom the once-bold experiment to utter failure.
Then there is the matter of the theft of eight mystic relics that Sir Cabirus had intended to use to cement the harmony of the colony, all of which disappeared among its many factions as he left no instructions as to how they would be divided among them. Even the grave of Sir Cabirus himself was eventually ransacked by thieves hungry for treasure.
It was into this crucible of death and fading dreams that the Avatar had been brought by the ghost of the wizard, Garamon, in a desperate plea for help. Unfortunately for the Avatar, they were dropped into the room of Baron Almric's daughter, Arial, as she was being abducted by the mage, Tyball. When the Baron's guards arrived to see the Avatar, it was assumed that he was responsible in some way for her disappearance and the sentence was consignment ino the Abyss. Either he would rescue his daughter or die trying, for the gates of the Abyss can only be opened from the surface.
Garamon visited the Avatar once again and revealed the the recovery of the eight relics of Sir Cabirus would aid in his quest. The Avatar, taking such advice to heart, soon set off on his journey. One the first level, the Avatar was provided with a recipe for rotworm stew by the green goblin, Lanugo. He would later discover a giant orb guarded by a huge slug and looking into it, learned little of the meaning behind the vision but would prove to be important later. As he quested, he slew a great spider whose strong thread would prove to be useful.
Moving to the second level via the goblins' privy, the Avatar discovered the realm of the Mountain Men who detest the term "dwarves" and found that they were best by a gazer. However, the Avatar was not yet mighty enough to deal with the beast and continued his explorations. Speaking with Shak, the Avatar learned that Sir Cabirus' Sword Caliburn and Shield of Valor had survived, although the Sword was broken into two pieces. Exploring further, the Avatar discovered another large spider that possessed a key, opening a door leading down to the third level.
There, the Avatar discovered that the region was dominated by the lizardmen and quickly made friends with a jailor and his prisoner, Murgo, that taught him a few words of the language. It was also then that the Avatar learned that Murgo was in prison for stealing food and offered their own to pay for his freedom. The Avatar also met a former knight named Zak who was quite insane.
The Avatar met the lizardman sage who wanted to find someone with the vigor and strength to find the mortal remains of another sage, Ossika, and the Avatar accepted the quest. From the papers found with Ossika's remains, the Avatar discovered the resting place of the blade of Sword Caliburn and the lever that drained the pond protecting it.
Eventually, the Avatar made their way to the fourth level where they encountered a Troll named Sethar who held many fireproof dragon scales and loved rotworm stew. Recalling the recipe, the Avatar cooked up a serving of the stew for the troll in exchange for a supply of the scales. The Avatar also discovered that most of the level was occupied by the Knights of the Crux Ansata who strove to continue their ideals despite the collapse of the colony. The Avatar was invited to join, passing their tests, and was soon charged to recover a relic known as the Writ of Lorne.
The Avatar found the Writ in a treasury guarded by a troll who was easily bribed. Once it was returned to the Knights, the Avatar was charged with another quest: to recover a golden plate important to the Knights. The plate was protected by a rogue knight named Rodrick whom none had been able to defeat. The Avatar had also discovered from Trisch that a madman had stolen another relic called the Taper of Sacrifice, another of Sir Cabirus' relics, and the madman's description matched that of Zak. Ree told the Avatar of a Golem on the sixth level and Derek, a gemwright, mentioned his need for a quality gem cutter.
The Avatar examined the gravestones and discovered the way to the Abyss' old banquet hall where Rodrick was found. In a terrible battle, Rodrick was defeated. Taking his key, the Avatar unlocked the door to the maze where the golden plate was kept. Returning it to the Knights, the Avatar was knighted and given the Standard of Honor, another of Sir Cabirus' relics, for their deeds.
The fifth level was the home of ghouls and the second half of the Sword Caliburn, or so the rumors said. The Avatar met Marrowsuck, a ghoul, and who happened to be tailor of some ability. From him, the Avatar arranged - with some food as incentive - to have boots made from the dragonskin scales acquired earlier using the tough spider thread. The Avatar also met Shanklick, the ghouls' leader, who provided clues on where the Avatar could find the haft of Sword Caliburn which was recovered after an adventure within a series of tombs.
Anjor, another denizen of the level and an alchemist of some ability, told of his difficulty in finding a rare element needed to transform base metals into gold. The Avatar decided to help Anjor but needed to find a way into the mines. With the help of another ghoul, the Avatar managed to do so and acquire the element Anjor needed, providing a nice amount of gold as payment.
The Avatar then returned to the third level and confronted Zak who gave up the Taper of Sacrifice for food. Returning to the second level, the Avatar spoke with Shak who agreed to repair Sword Caliburn for gold and while waiting, hunted down and slew the gazer terrorizing the mountainmen. King Goldthirst was so impressed that he gave the Avatar a gem cutter used by the Great Coulnes.
Shak completed the Sword Caliburn and then once more descended into the Abyss to visit the Knights. Giving the cutter to Derek, the gemwright told the Avatar how to find the Ring of Humility, another of Sir Cabirus' relics, and recovered it. Before heading back to the sixth level, the Avatar ran across another ghoul named Eyesnack who was also a flutist. Giving him a flute discovered on the fifth level, the Avatar learned some of his music. Descending to the sixth level, the Avatar ran into the mad mages left from the collapse of the colony.
One was named Dr. Owl who would not have even considered the Avatar worth his attention had the Avatar not rescued Murgo who was his servant. For doing so, Dr. Owl gave the Avatar instructions on how to find the Wine of Compassion, another of Sir Cabirus' relics, which also quickly recovered from the old Academy. Another mage, Bronus, asked the Avatar to deliver a book to Morlock who then told the Avatar where to find the Book of Honesty, another of Sir Cabirus' relics. After recovering it, the Avatar explored more of the level and met Nilpont who spoke of a Golem living on a lava surrounded island.
It was created as a test for warriors and the Avatar quickly took up the challenge hoping to win the prize it would reputedly give the winner. With the dragonscale boots, the Avatar walked to the island and defeated the Golem in a mighty battle. The prize turned out to be the Shield of Valor, one of the last of Sir Cabirus' relics. The Avatar was also told by another mage where to find a powerful Vas rune stone which was also recovered.
Another mage, Fyrgen, also shared a vision with the Avatar: burning incense and a terrible demon were revealed. Yet another mage requiring a chore, Louvnon, told the Avatar of a mantra broken apart into three pieces that could reveal hidden and lost things. While exploring, the Avatar found some incense and sought to put what they had learned to work, discovering a vision that was also a part of a mantra. Repeating the process, the Avatar received two more visions and soon recovered all of the missing pieces of the mantra.
Using it at a shrine, the Avatar was led to the Cup of Wonder which only revealed itself once the Avatar played the flute music learned from Eyesnack. Eyesnack had no inkling of the power of that particular tune, but to the Avatar, it proved to be incredibly helpful in recovering the relic. With all of Cabirus' relics in hand and the revelation that a terrible demon dwelled far below, the Avatar steeled their courage to face it.
Descending to the seventh level, the Avatar found Cardon, a fighter who had come to rescue his brother from the grasp of the wizard, Tyball. Using one of Tyball's badges of passage, Cardon had managed to slip past through the patrolling bands of Tyball's minions, but had lost it in a battle. The Avatar took up where Cardon had left off, recovering the badge and slipping past Tyball's guards.
The Avatar soon met Naruto, another mage, who proved to be most knowledgeable. He revealed that a friend of his had lost an important key needed to gain entry to the final level and a special crown. He also knew that magic would not function on the seventh level except for Tyball's and it was due to a mystic orb. Naruto shared with the Avatar the suggestion that an object made of the same material that the orb was made from could undo it.
Tyball's jail was the next stop and the Avatar found themselves an reluctant guest thanks to a treacherous guard. From the prisoners who knew too much to be dangerous, they shared three keys with the Avatar: one to allow passage into the hidden tombs, Naruto's key which opened the stairway to the Crown of Navigation below, and another key which was the entrance to a secret passage carved by the prisoners.
The Avatar explored the hidden tombs thanks to the crystal splinter that acted as the key, eventually finding a treasure room filled with crowns. There, an imp that was unhappy with Tyball and his plans gave the Avatar a magical crown that allowed the Avatar to see the correct path through the maze protecting the nefarious wizard. Returning to level seven and through the secret prison exit, the Avatar found another stairway down leading to where Tyball had mined the materials for his orb. Taking some of the rocks and a key hidden beneath a skull, the Avatar found the entrance to Tyball's maze.
Wearing the imp's crown and finding the way to Tyball's chamber, the Avatar quickly struck the orb with the rocks taken from the mining site, destroying it and weakening Tyball. But the wizard was not yet defeated and was more than willing to tell the Avatar his plans. He planned to use Arial's body as a vessel for the demon to inhabit. Disgusted by his evil, the Avatar engaged the magic user in battle and slew him. Arial was finally freed and sent back to her father in safety, but the Avatar was not finished yet.
The Avatar used another of Tyball's keys to reach his most secure jail cells and discovered from the prisoners more of the truths behind his work. One of these, named Smonden, gave the Avatar a key that led to the Key of Courage. Another, named Gurstang, told the Avatar of the Key of Truth and of a password that was needed with his friend, Ullomo. The prisoner Bolinard had nothing so dramatic to offer, only an old picture of a fighter named Tomb.
Using these clues, the Avatar assembled all three keys: The Key of Courage was first. By returning to the fifth level and finding a woman named Judy that he had met before, he gave her the picture of Tom to which she wept. Her tears fell into the lava below where she stood, revealing the Key of Love. Finally, upon visiting Illomo and giving him the password Gurstang told him of, Illomo gave the Avatar a book inscribed with the password. Taking the book to the shrine and praying over it, the Key of Truth revealed itself.
The Avatar rested after Tyball's defeat but the ghost of his brother, Garamon, revealed himself again. Garamon asked the Avatar to find his bones and bury them and the Avatar undertook this quest and, once discovering them with the help of a man named Carasso who also gave him a key leading to the Chamber of Virtue, laid them to rest in the tombs. There, Garamon's ghost seemed to appear even greater than before and told the Avatar how to summon the magic needed to confront and banish the demon called Slasher of Veils.
The Avatar combined the Keys of Courage, Love, and Truth and descended into the eighth level. With the newly formed Key of Infinity, the Avatar used it to access the Chamber of Virtue whereupon each of Sir Cabirus' talismans were thrown into the volcano. With the destruction of the eighth relic, the Avatar was pulled into the dark dimension where the demon awaited as the energies released by the relics began to work the magic that would trap the Slasher of Veils forever.
The demon was far too powerful for the Avatar to overcome but from the vision that he had seen in the orb on the first level as well as clues left behind by others, knew that the only way to escape lay along a green path that shimmered in front of them. The Avatar fled from the Slasher of Veils as long as they could until a Moongate opened before them allowing them to leap through to Britannia and to safety, forever binding the demon within their own dimension.
Arial was freed, the evil of Tyball was ended, and the demon trapped forever. With these deeds accomplished, the Avatar once again saved the land from destruction and returned a hero.
Ultima Underworld is a free-roaming first-person CRPG in which the player uses the mouse to interact with its world and manage their character. A large interface provides all of the information that the player will need onscreen such as a compass, health and mana (magic points required for spellcasting) represented as flasks filled with liquid, and a visual representation of their character and the equipment it is outfitted with.
The game casts the player as the Avatar, the ever-present protagonist of the Ultima series, as they descend into the Sygian Abyss. The Abyss is comprised of a vast underground network of caves and cavernous spaces that had once served as a prison and then later on, as a failed utopian experiment, carved into a volcano. The setting serves as a multi-leveled dungeon with a number of environmental puzzles and challenging monsters including a number of NPCs that the player may interact with.
Although the main quest is to rescue the daughter of the ruling Baron located on the surface, the player eventually uncovers a much greater threat dwelling within the Abyss and must work to stop it. The environment was also notable for the degree of detail given to creating a living dungeon with a "lived in" look to much of what is there in order to further deepen the sense that it is far more than what it seems to be. Many objects are useless but can be collected by the player and even food can be used as interactive objects with the environment.
The quest is non-linear and open ended allowing the player to explore the dungeon at will and take on the many side-quests and tasks as they are discovered creating a sense of emergent gameplay dictated by their actions. The dungeon itself featured sloping surfaces, staircases, underground rivers, fiery lava, and deep pits creating a dangerous environment rife with challenges both from the monsters living within its depths to the natural terrors that awaited the explorer. The Stygian Abyss spanned over eight, vast levels.
Weapons also wear down with use forcing the player either to find new weapons to replace older ones or invest time in learning the Repair skill which is available to certain classes. The skill system, while extensive, restricts many of its abilities to certain classes only. No one character can learn everything within the game.
The player saw Ultima Underworld through a window set within a HUD displaying all of the options that they could use with the game. A central screen displays the world The central screen displayed both a cursor and the currently readied weapon of the character. On the left hand side, a series of selectable options were listed:
- Talk - Turns the cursor into a pair of lips allowing the player to talk to whoever they click on
- Get - Turns the cursor into a grasping hand to pick up whatever is clicked on
- Look - Turns the cursor into an eye allowing the player to take a closer look at a specific item or hotspot
- Fight - Turns the cursor into a targeting reticule allowing the player to attack whatever they click on
Below the option panel is a "power gem" that shows how strong the player character's physical attack is going to be when the attack button is held down. It also shows how much weight the character is currently hauling around.
A compass is also located blow the world view screen accompanied by an active spell panel to the left and the runes currently arranged for spellcasting on its right.
Several slots are arranged around the Avatar indicating holders for armor, weapons, magical items, rings, and containers in which to store extra items (and which open up to display their contents). Below the character panel are two flasks that show how much health and mana (magic) the character currently has in reserve.
At the bottom of the HUD is a message scroll displaying actions, warnings, and other messages of note pertinent to the game.
Movement is handled via the mouse and the world screen. By pointing the mouse within the screen and towards its edges, forward or back, the arrow cursor would change indicating where the player would be turning or moving. Jumping was handled with the right mouse button. Moving faster, such as running forward, was done by moving the arrow further to the top of the screen...in essence, moving it further away from the player towards the direction the player wants to head towards.
Utlima Underworld also came with an automapping feature that slowly filled in the surrounding area as it was explored. Notations by the player could also be added to the map.
The Avatar has to eat and sleep in order to survive within the abyss. Finding and collecting food becomes as important as discovering new rune stones for magic or equipment in order to improve the Avatar's chances for survival. The Avatar will also require rest making it wise to sleep when the player feels that it is safe to do so. If the Avatar is hungry when sleeping, the rate of recovery for both health and mana reserves will be worse. Using a bedroll will also help recovery while sleeping.
Slaying monsters, exploring the Abyss, and completing quests will award the Avatar with experience. As the Avatar gains levels, their Vitality (hit points) improve including their ability to cast more powerful spells. Increases are automatic.
The player is free to choose whatever sex they want to create their Avatar. It has no effect on the main quest or their character's statistics. They can also select what handedness they want their character to be (left or right handed), such as what will be their weapon hand and which will bear their shield.
A number of classes are available to pick from and each one determines what skills will be available to the player in their development. No one character class can learn every skill that there is available in the game:
- Fighter - A warrior trained in the military arts since youth
- Mage - One born with the ability to cast spells
- Bard - A traveling entertainer, perhaps a storyteller or a musician
- Tinker - A skilled craftsman particularly with weapons and armor
- Druid - A guardian of the woodlands able in both combat and magic
- Paladin - A warrior who also has some grasp of the art of spellcasting. Able to repair his own stuff like a Tinker.
- Ranger - A woodsman skilled at tracking, hunting, and fighting
- Shepherd - A resourceful sheep-tender, often a jack-of-all-trades
The next step in character creation requires the player to select a number of skills that will be added to those that are already given to them automatically as a part of their class. For example, players may wish for a Fighter to have the sword skill, or replace it with another skill such as axe, mace, or even the unarmed combat skill.
Afterwards, a portrait can be selected to represent the player character along with a name.
The game's difficulty can be set to either Standard or Easy and cannot be changed unless a new game is started. In Easy mode, monsters are easier to defeat and less dangerous.
The list of skills the the player can pick from (and which are used to build each class) are shown in the list below. The attribute indicated in parenthesis is what most directly impacts that skill:
- Acrobat (DX) - The ability to move with grace. It reduces damage in case the player character falls from a great height or smashes into something by accident. Somewhat useful in the Abyss, but useless if the player is particularly careful.
- Appraise (DX) - How to perceive the value of goods at a glance. Even in the Abyss, there are those that will barter with the Avatar in order to survive and knowing how to get the best deal will prove valuable to those wishing to save as much coin as possible.
- Attack (ST) - General fighting ability that is the most important skill for fighting classes.
- Axe (ST) - Expertise in axe use increasing a character's ability to defend and use it in combat.
- Casting (INT) - Improves the success of spellcasting. Particularly important to mage-type characters.
- Charm (DX) - Increases the character's chances of getting a good deal during bartering.
- Defense (ST) - The ability to defend one's self in combat by penalizing enemies that try to attack the player character.
- Lore (INT) - The ability to identify something by using the Look command.
- Mace (ST) - Training in the use of blunt weapons such as a mace or a cudgel.
- Mana (INT) - This increases the number of Mana (magic) points available to a character.
- Missile (ST) - Increases the damage done using missile weapons from crossbows to slings.
- Picklock (DX) - The ability to use lockpicks to get into locked chests or doors.
- Repair (DX) - The ability to fix weapons and armor using an anvil. A particularly valuable skill to have in the Abyss where such items are scarce.
- Search (DX) - Training which heightens perceptions, allowing hidden doors and traps to be located with greater accuracy. Used whenever the player decides to use the Look command on a particular spot.
- Sneak (DX) - The ability to move quietly. Somewhat useless in the game, especially at the end.
- Swimming (DX) - Improves chances of not drowning. Useful in the Abyss.
- Sword (ST) - Training with the sword and dagger improving chances of both fighting and defending with each.
- Track (DX) - The ability to perceive animal tracks allowing players to know when creatures are near.
- Traps (DX) - Allows players to disable a trap, of which there are many.
- Unarmed (ST) - Training in unarmed combat.
The spell system is based on the collection of runic tiles called "rune stones" within the game. By combining certain tiles together on the spell shelf next to the compass, a spell could then be cast by clicking on them. Spells were also cast draining the Avatar's mana reserves which were restored with rest or with potions.
Attacking enemies in the game is handled with the mouse. By pointing the combat cursor on enemies (aiming) and then clicking the right mouse button, an appropriate attack will be executed. With weapons such as swords, the location of the cursor in the world screen when the attack is initiated will determine what kind of move is used.
- Starting the attack from the top of the screen will result in a bash attack.
- From the middle of the screen, it will result in a sideways slash.
- From the bottom part of the screen, it will be a thrusting move.
Unarmed attacks can only jab at the enemy. The color of the gargoyle at the top of the screen will indicate the state of the current enemy that is being attacked. If the eyes are green, the enemy is in good shape. Yellow means that they are hurt. Red means that they are near death.
Some inanimate objects can be smashed with attacks such as locked chests and doors. However, this will also increase the wear and tear on whatever the player has decided to bash them with.
Missile weapons have to be readied first before being fired and will also require ammunition. Some projectiles are destroyed on impact, but others can actually be recovered and used again.