Serpent Isle Review
ULTIMA VII PART TWO: SERPENT ISLE from Origin
Reviewed by Daniel J. Starr
Computer Graphics Memory Disk Space
Minimum 386 VGA 2 MB 25 MB
Control: Keyboard, Mouse (recommended)
Sound: Adlib, Sound Blaster, SB Pro, Roland LAPC-1/MT-32
Notes: Supports simultaneous SB or SB Pro and Roland. Cannot be
run with expanded memory manager (EMM386.EXE or equivalent).
Requires 535,000-587,000 bytes of free conventional memory to
run, depending on configuration.
Reviewed version 1.02 on: 486/66, 8MB RAM, SB Pro and Roland sound cards.
Reviewer recommends: 2MB disk cache, SB-compatible sound card.
(A warning: users of DOS 6.0's Doublespace may need some work to free up
enough low memory. See the technical postscript at the end of the
The ULTIMA series of computer games have been a breed apart almost from
the beginning, and essentially unique in outlook and design since ULTIMA
IV: QUEST OF THE AVATAR. Ever since that classic, the Ultima games have
been distinguished by the detail and richness of the world depicted in the
games, by an emphasis on more substantial 'role-playing' instead of
endless combat, and by a continuing effort to find novel and interesting
ways of having the player save the world -- not to mention ever-increasing
sophistication in graphics and interface.
The most recent Ultima, ULTIMA VII: THE BLACK GATE, represented at once
both a step up in technology and a step down in plot. The appearance of
the world the player stepped into, and the detail of its elements, was
incredible -- chairs, dishes, everything were all individually represented
and manipulable. On the other hand, the plot was a thin combination of
"hunt the elusive villains" and "stop the world-conquering megalomaniac"
which had the player essentially following a series of step-by-step
instructions from various mentors all the way through.
Happily, The Black Gate's sequel, ULTIMA VII PART II: SERPENT ISLE,
further improves on its predecessor's interface while providing a new and
substantially better plot. Serpent Isle looks significantly better, is
controlled more easily, and has a lot more depth to its story and play.
The game's one major flaw is an excessively forced linearity. Despite its
'Part 2' marking, Serpent Isle is worthy of recognition in its own right
(and, incidentally, can be played without having played U7, without too
much lost). In my opinion, it's substantially more enjoyable than U7, and
worth a try from almost everyone.
Those who played Ultima VII will recall that at the end of that game, the
Avatar, savior of the kingdom of Britannia in times of danger, had
banished -- but not destroyed -- the demonic Guardian, while his arch-
henchman Batlin escaped. In the tale of Serpent Isle, you, the Avatar,
are dispatched with your companions by Lord British to the newly
rediscovered Isle. It appears that both the Guardian and Batlin have
retreated there, and perhaps there you may find the source of the
continuing natural and magical disturbances plaguing Britannia. And so
another chapter in the saga begins...
GO WEST, YOUNG AVATAR (Interface)
The interface will be immediately familiar to players of U7, and quite
intuitive for anyone else. The left mouse button represents the player's
hands, the right button his feet. A single right-click moves a step, a
double-click moves to the clicked location, holding the button down moves
the player continuously in the mouse pointer's direction. A single left-
click looks at something, a double-click talks to it, uses it, or attacks
it (whatever seems appropriate...), and a click-and-drag picks something
up to drop it in the player's inventory or elsewhere.
Some nice touches have been added to the interface since U7. A 'targeting
mode' lets the player click more easily on fast-moving characters ("Wait!
You! I want to talk to you!"); keyboard 'hot keys' let the player
conveniently call up his map, spellbook, or the like; a unified combat
screen lets one adjust all party members' tactics at once. Combat has
also been improved in that characters don't shoot each other nearly as
often as in U7. One nuisance that has not been eliminated is food; one's
companions will still stoically (but vocally!) undergo starvation while
food remains unused in their packs. But the overall control of the game
is quite smooth these days.
U GOT THE LOOK (Graphics & sound)
The appearance of Serpent Isle is likewise similar to that of Ultima 7,
but again ratcheted up a few notches. As before, the detail is incredible
(especially compared to other adventure and role-playing games, where 90%
of the 'environment' remains backdrop), with everything from cloaks to
diapers to plates and flowerpots individually modeled. You can pick the
things up, carry them around, drop them elsewhere, use them, break them or
attack with them if it's appropriate. One gets so used to it that one has
to remind oneself that it's not at all this way in other games. Here,
it's almost literally possible to pick up everything that isn't nailed
down. Even the bags and backpacks in which you carry your inventory
appear on screen when opened as, well, bags and backpacks. The level of
realism is really quite amazing, and still completely unequaled in
The biggest single improvement in Serpent Isle's look over U7 is in the
character portraits. When you talk to someone, their portrait appears
next to their words (and yours next to your choices of conversation
subjects), each portrait an ellipse almost a half-screen tall and half as
wide. Some seem to be digitized photos, others are painted, but all are
very nice. Virtually everyone has a unique picture.
Other features have been added to dress up SI's look -- in the literal
sense of 'dress up', 'paper-doll' inventory displays alter the character's
pose and dress directly with what he or she wears, to the point where it
becomes fun to try on different pieces of equipment to see what it'll look
like. New terrain types have been added, and more variety and detail to
the preexisting features.
Sound, for its part, is excellent as ever, with suitably realistic birds
chirping, thunder crashing, and snow leopards meowing (don't ask).
Another feather in SI's cap is substantially more and more varied speech
than in U7; five different entities offer you digitized salutations at
various points during the game, in addition to full speech during the
introduction and endgame sequences.
So Serpent Isle definitely looks and feels even richer than its
predecessor ... but how does it play?
A WHALE (SERPENT?) OF A TALE (Game story)
Serpent Isle's plot has a great story to it, with great atmosphere, lots
of conversation, much more seriousness, depth and realism than U7. It
also has a linear organization with a poorly designed flag system that can
stymie the player for no logical reason. You win some, you lose some...
it's more annoying in places than U7 ever was, but on the other hand
there's so much more to do and so much more to the story than in U7 that
it still comes off as a significantly better game. (Maybe we can get the
best of both worlds in the next Ultima.) SI is an incredibly rich game;
the frustrations are worth it.
The first thing to mention about the play of Serpent Isle is the
conversation. Lots of it. More than one person on the net has remarked
that the last time they saw this many words in a computer game, the name
on the box was Infocom. Fortunately, the words are well spent -- this is
a decidedly articulate and intriguing populace here on Serpent Isle. There
is now much more to each character than simply his or her role in
fulfilling your quest -- almost everyone has a distinct personality, and
it's a lot of fun just to walk around, talk to everyone, and enjoy this
miniature world. There are cute idolizing kids, pompous fools, seducers
and seductresses, braggarts, thieves, nincompoops, and plenty of average
but still interesting people. Everyone has something to talk about. Even
the little remarks people make when you greet or leave them have been
improved tremendously -- you get little kids saying "Come back soon!" and
knights saying "Slay a goblin!" on departure, not to mention old grumps
muttering "Leave me alone!" when you try to talk to them. The quality of
conversation in SI is unequaled... it's probably the single strongest
feature of the game.
The next item on the list is the story of the game -- not so much what the
player actually does in the game, but the tale that's revealed in the
process. It's certainly one of the most convoluted and rich tales I've
ever seen in a computer game... there are several different bad guys,
good guys, and other guys, not to mention all manner of motives and
activities. It may be the stimulus of having a game not set on Britannia,
where so much is already given; but for whatever reason the tale that
unfolds is more interesting than any of the other Ultimas to date.
Serpent Isle features all manner of romance, treachery, tragedy, and
villainy. The ultimate secret of why things are going wrong, when
discovered, is not completely novel, but it is more original than the norm
and it is done well. And there are a LOT of surprising twists along the
I should also mention that Serpent Isle does a much better job of being
'adult' -- both in violence and in sex -- than U7. There's some real gore
(dismembered body parts, and a few dismembered MOVING body parts), and
some real heavy tear-jerking, that goes on at some points in the game.
There are even two sex scenes, with full 1-inch-high nudity (although the
screen does go dark before things get too raunchy). Overall, Serpent Isle
feels like a much more serious, more real world than Britannia. People in
SI have passions, ambitions, and problems -- less superficial ones than
the convenient 'oh, Avatar, could you help me with thus-and-so' variety of
U7. SI still features the Ultimas' annoying habit of stereotyping towns
as the 'city of beauty' or the 'city of mages' instead of giving places a
more natural personality, but it is by far the most realistic and vivid
Ultima to date in terms of individual characterization.
GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS (Game play)
So, the atmosphere is great... what about the play? For the most part,
the mix of player actions is vintage Ultima: talk to a lot of people,
pass through assorted gauntlets, participate in a variety of rituals, and
fight lots of nasties along the way. Serpent Isle's presentation of the
blend has its good points and bad ones.
One of the strengths of SI is the number and variety of challenges. There
are a _lot_ of subplots the player must work through in the game on the
way toward solving the main quest and they come in many different flavors.
The player, at various points, gets to: pass logical or physical
challenges, unriddle mysteries, discover traitors, win free of prison,
fight the occasional ferocious monster or deranged wizard, and participate
in mighty rituals. All of these come with very nice conversational
dressing, so that they do come across as worthwhile rather than routine;
only in a few places does the presentation fall flat and the transcendent
come off as trivial. On the other hand, they do seem to come in packs...
for example, at the beginning of the game, it seems one is continually
attending banquets and trials, while toward the end one is constantly
performing great rituals. It might have been more exciting if the two
were better mixed. Still, the aforementioned quality of scripting makes
almost every scene gripping.
A second strength of SI is its set pieces -- its 'reward' sequences and
the like. There are numerous occasions when the player gets to sit back
and watch the fun, and they are very well done. Again, the writers did an
outstanding job scripting this one. It's hard to convey how much is added
by this, short of quoting extensive sections from game play; suffice it to
say that the story is presented in vivid and impressive detail in this
game. It really is a standard-setter in this respect, not only for CRPG's
but also for traditional adventure games.
SI does have a major weakness: linearity. That is, the game is
excessively strict about requiring the player to do certain things in a
certain order. Sometimes this takes the carrot-and-stick approach in
which the person or object you need to do B is conveniently locked up and
won't be available until you do A. Sometimes certain conversation options
-- though they were entirely obvious! -- won't appear until you've done
something somewhere else. Many times characters seem completely oblivious
to important events, while occasionally doors will inexplicably become
unlocked or chests will appear in places because a game flag has been
All of this is a slap in the player's face and a real jarring factor when
everything else seems so natural. The good news is that this only happens
every so often, at crucial game bottlenecks. The bad news is that it gets
very annoying to observe that one is being shoved none too subtly down a
certain path. The frequent repetitions of citizens of Monitor of "Not a
knight!" (there's a Test of Knighthood, which the game wants you to take,
see) are only one example. It's a real pain, since the story could have
been told much the same way without so many restrictions, and since it
robs one of the opportunity to merrily explore that The Black Gate
The corollary weakness of linearity is that the game highlights all the
programmers' oversights, whether the player is expected to do certain
things in a precise order or manner, or the programmers just plain goofed.
For example, in the town of Monitor, one of the first things you want to
do is go see the town leaders. You are directed to the crematorium, where
you are told that the leaders are in the crypts -- but NOT where those
crypts are! So, you go hunting all over town for the crypts and fail to
find them. Eventually, the leaders leave the crypts and can be found
elsewhere in town. If you talk to the crematorium manager at this point,
he now tells you, if you ask, that the crypts are behind the curtain at
the back of the crematorium. Because of the way the conversation options
are controlled by game flags, it was not possible to learn this from him
when the leaders were in the crypts -- which was when you wanted to know!
Worse yet, much later in the game, a gate is opened by placing the right
sequence of runes on a set of altars. But the gate will not open unless
one has been told the sequence -- the correct sequence does not work, even
if one guesses it, until then. Moreover, unless one has had a certain dog
sniff a certain object (in a logically completely unrelated event), it
STILL won't work. You can't progress until you figure out what it is that
the game expects you to have done that you haven't, the fact that there's
no logical reason for this obstacle notwithstanding. Idiocies like these
occur in various places throughout the game. Only one or two of them are
show-stoppers, but when they occur they can be incredibly frustrating.
An additional flaw is the lack of any real source of good advice. The
game has enough twists and turns that it's occasionally quite unclear what
the player should do next. At times like this it would have been
invaluable and simple to have an option to consult a companion -- "Gee,
Dupre, what should we do now?" "Milord, I suggest we revisit some of our
earlier acquaintances. Perhaps one of them has something new to offer."
This sort of thing would significantly alleviate some of the problems
caused by excessive linearity. Instead, the game generally has little or
no help to offer.
("It's not a bug, it's a feature" -- there are two places where the game
offers nonexistent or erroneous help, and it REALLY needs correction.
First, for the soul prisms to work, they need to be 'sealed' after use by
employing them on a device suitable for binding spirits (nudge, nudge).
Second, when Xenka tells you to go to Sunrise Isle, don't. Nothing there
at that point -- she really means the Shrine of Balance.)
On the whole, though, Serpent Isle is a very rich game. There's a lot to
do, with a lot of variety, and the scripts that surround each element are
extraordinarily well done. Kudos to the writers -- though not to the
designers of the flag system. The story is definitely good enough to
justify the player's suffering through the artificial restrictions, but
the gamer should be ready for them (and Origin should be ashamed of them).
SETTING SAIL (Technical notes and summary)
Documentation and installation are fine (although at 25 MB, it's a real
resource-eater). And there is the traditional nifty cloth map -- at last,
of a place besides Britannia! I should note that characters from Ultima 7
are not transferred, although the Avatar does arrive at the Isle with a
full complement of equipment. While people have reported occasional
problems getting the game to install or boot up, nothing like the reliably
distressing bugs of Ultima 7 have shown up yet in Serpent Isle, except for
the flag system mentioned before ("it's not a bug, it's a feature") --
there are, as noted, a couple of places where the game won't let you
progress because you haven't done something else unrelated. Like U7, SI
taxes the hard drive a great deal; I strongly recommend using any extra
RAM for a disk cache. While it's hard to tell on a fast computer, users
of 386SX's have reported that SI does run a bit faster than U7.
In all, Serpent Isle is certainly a quality game. It does have its
annoyances, but it matches an unequaled technology in appearance and
interface with a superbly scripted story. It's more vivid, more
realistic, and more fun than its predecessor, and has more plot depth than
anything on the market, although there are a few points in it where the
poorly designed flag system and strictly linear organization can provide
much frustration. Along with the rest of the Ultimas, it occupies a place
between the adventure games and the dungeon games, so it's not always
clear who the audience is. But a game with this much depth deserves a
look from almost everyone.
--Technical Postscript: Removing Doublespace Drivers--
Serpent Isle requires 535-587K of low memory to run, and is incompatible
with expanded memory managers (which are normally needed to load programs
into high memory), so users of disk compression software may need to
remove their drivers to free up sufficient low memory. The problem with
doing this with DOS 6.0's Doublespace software is that the drivers are
marked as system files and therefore are loaded regardless of the contents
of your CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files. It is possible, however, to
get around this; the following batch files should do the trick. (Use EDIT
or your favorite editor to type these in and save them as DOS text files.)
Of course, Doublespace won't function without its drivers, so you will not
be able to read the compressed portion of your hard drive. In particular,
DO NOT USE THESE FILES IF YOUR ENTIRE BOOT DRIVE IS COMPRESSED. Use at
your own risk.
(Why is it incompatible with expanded memory managers? Because the
'VOODOO' memory management system used in Ultima 7 and Serpent Isle puts
the CPU into the semi-documented 'Big Real Mode'. This lets the programs
access all of memory quickly, allowing the multitude of objects and
characters featured in the games to be manipulated at a reasonable speed.
Unfortunately, Windows and expanded memory managers can't deal with the
CPU in this mode. The good news is that Serpent Isle should be the last
Ultima to use this system; Origin apparently has found an adequate normal
compiler for its purposes.)
Rem ** Once this is run, all subsequent boots will not load the
Rem ** Doublespace drivers. Run DOUBLE to cause Doublespace
Rem ** once again to be loaded on subsequent boots.
Rem ** Note: you will not be able to read the compressed portion
Rem ** of your hard drive without Doublespace loaded. DO NOT USE
Rem ** THIS FILE IF YOUR ENTIRE BOOT DRIVE IS COMPRESSED.
ATTRIB C:\DBLSPACE.INI -S -R -H
RENAME C:\DBLSPACE.INI DBLSPACE.HLD
ATTRIB c:\DBLSPACE.HLD +S +R +H
Rem ** when run after NODOUBLE has been run, resets files so that
Rem ** subsequent reboots once again load Doublespace drivers.
ATTRIB C:\DBLSPACE.HLD -S -R -H
RENAME C:\DBLSPACE.HLD DBLSPACE.INI
ATTRIB C:\DBLSPACE.INI +S +R +H
This review Copyright (C) 1993 by Daniel J. Starr. All rights reserved.