The genesis of a seminal RPG series
Originally released for the Apple II in 1980, this little game would have most certainly fallen into obscurity if it wasn't for the fact that it is the spiritual predecessor of "Ultima", programmed by a then very young Richard 'Lord British' Garriott. Frankly, until I bought the Ultima Collection back in 1997, I wasn't even aware of "Akalabeth". So, did we miss out on a forgotten RPG masterpiece?
The story is as simple as it can get. You venture out to the court of Lord British who will give you the assignment to find and kill a specific monster, like a gremlin for example. Then you set off to a dungeon, do as you're asked and return to Lord British who in turn will ask you to kill another monster and so on. After fulfilling ten of these repetitive quests, you have solved "Akalabeth". Aside from a passing reference of Mondain (the main villain of "Ultima I") and the fact that a certain Lord British issues the assignments, there aren't any references to the Ultima series at all. So for all of you who thought to gain some insight into the Ultima-verse, there isn't really anything for you in this game.
The game itself is as equally basic as the story. First of all, the game is entirely controlled with the keypad. Although this seems a little bit off-putting at first there aren't many keys you will need to play the game in the first place. The arrow keys are used to maneuveur your character in the respective direction, A is for attack, E for entering (caves, towns etc.) and the Z key shows your statistics. Speaking of which, there are the standard hit points, strength, dexterity, stamina, wisdom and gold stats. Character generation is very straight forward as well: The game spits out some stats and you decide whether to play with those attributes or to roll again. After that you can decide whether to play as a fighter or as a mage and at last you equip your character with weapons, armor and (very important) food.
After that you are thrown on the overworld map which consists of a 20x20 top-down grid. Whether there are any woods, deserts or marshes is hard to tell, since the whole overworld is black with the occasional white rectangle (town) or x (cave/dangeon) and other simple shapes scattered throughout. Although the map is not modeled with ASCII symbols and mountains are rudimentary visualized as those, you'll need a lot of imagination to make yourself truly believe that you are... well, in some world.
I mentioned earlier that food is very important and indeed it is. While your first task consists of finding Lord British's castle, with every step you take, your food supplies will deplete which means you'll starve to death. After having found the castle Lord British hands out your assignment and off you are again. Your next task is to find a dungeon.
Upon entering such a monster dwelling the view changes from the top-down view of the overworld to a crude fist-person perspective. The movement in the dungeons is grid based and allows your character to turn around its axis in 90 degree steps. Unless you consider the color black a texture, the walls, floors and everything else is not textured. Passages, doors, ladders, monsters etc., however, are easily discernable, even though their depiction is very simplistic. The only thing changing graphic-wise is the color of your surroundings while you descend deeper into the dungeon.
The gameplay basically consists of fighting monsters, gaining gold and leveling up your character. Each time you defeated a monster Lord British asked you to kill, you should return to him in order to get your next task. While fighting the monsters there isn't much for you to do except hitting the A key for attacking. You have, however, the option to use long-range weapons such as bows and arrows or throwing axes. As the dungeons consist of several levels you'll naturally encounter stronger enemies the deeper you descend. Every once in a while you stumble across some chests which you should plunder in order to get new weapons or gold. One the most important things to do while slaying enemies (besides watching your hit points) is to keep a check on the amount of food you have left. Even in the dungeons it is still possible to starve to death, although you do not use up as many rations as if you were traveling across the overworld. In order to replenish your food supplies or buy new/better weapons you have to travel back to the overworld and find a town's shop.
The only music you'll hear in the game is the MIDI-version of the Britannia theme from later Ultima games.
Final verdict: As you can gather from my review, I'm not very fond of "Akalabeth". It was interesting to see from where the Ultima series originated, but the gameplay is too simplistic and repetitive to capture one's attention for much longer than maybe one afternoon. However, aside from mentioning Mondain and Lord British, "Akalabeth" already contained some features of the "Ultima" series, like watching your food rations or separate views for the overworld and the dungeons. For its time, "Akalabeth" was certainly a good game which offered exactly what was expected of a game back than. But the gaming world has changed a great deal since then and therefore, I consider "Akalabeth" an interesting footnote in the "Ultima" series, but not a fun game that you should have played.