is the second (and sadly also the last) part of Worlds of Adventure, a spin-off series of Ultima games set in our universe instead of Britannia. Like the predecessor The Savage Empire it draws inspiration from pulp novels and science fiction stories. Especially those tales full of excitement with heroic guys (and occasionally girls) on the cover who single-handedly save the world/planet by fighting hordes of enemies in the most exotic places imaginable. This time you set forth on a journey to Mars, so it pays homage to novels like Burroughs’ Barsoom stories, Well‘s The War of the Worlds and Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.
The game’s story is a fascinating melange of those sources and their tropes: Percival Lowell, one of the main advocates of canals/water on Mars, wants to shoot a group of explorers to the red planet via an enormous space cannon. But something goes wrong and you, the Avatar, who just arrived by the magic of time paradox, are sent off on a mission to rescue him and his fellow adventurers. Perfectly fitting to the Mars theme all of this takes place in the Victorian Age, when the hype about live on Mars was at its height. This lends the whole game a nice vibe of Steampunk, those industrial revolution scenarios turned up to 11, where every problem can be solved by heavy use of the eponymous steam engines.
This particular iteration of Mars treads a fine line between the familiar and the new. On the one hand you get lots of details which are taken right out of the rich pool of myths and ideas in popular culture about the fourth rock from the sun, which makes the world easily accessible, because it caters to your expectations. You want little green men? You got it! No science fiction without the use of ray guns? Of course! On the other hand there are some interesting twists and original ideas which gives the game a very fresh feeling and makes the exploration part all the more interesting. For example: Who said that the ‘green’ part should not be taken literally? And why only take scientists and explorers on the expedition?
Which brings us to one of the strongest points of the game: The NPCs. There are lots of them and as mentioned above they are not only limited to one kind of people but stem from a variety of professions – and places at that. The human ones have one thing in common though: Except for a handful of Ultima-characters in new clothes (the usual suspects), they are famous people from the turn of the 19th century. It is nice how the writers tried to flesh out those historic characters, how they gave each one of them a personality as close as they could get to the original figure. Admittedly some of them are barely recognisable (e.g. a very boring Mark Twain), but the majority of them are just the way you would expect them to be (or have been). It is also fascinating that you can tell what kind of person they are, which social status they have or even their nationality, without even knowing who they are simply by talking to them and noticing their accent or listening to their thoughts and ideas.
As far as the Martians are concerned, the characters get slightly flatter, although still diverse and complex enough to tell them apart. One of their most outstanding features is their culture and their way of thinking, which has a profoundly alien flair. Combine that with a very flavourful art style and you get an almost believable experience of meeting strange new life forms. Naturally first contacts like these come with certain reservations on both parts, and sometimes it even boils down to racism. Which could have been an interesting topic if the game would not have handled it so clumsily.
It starts when you meet the aliens for the first time, and realise how incredibly aloof they are. They compare you to worms, since those belong to the only kind of animals that live on the planet (everything else evolved from plants), and make up all kind of creative insults concerning your supposed ancestors. It seems natural and turns them into believable characters, even if not very likeable ones. The humans are also very suspicious, which becomes most apparent by the fact that you seem to be the only person who makes an effort to try and contact the natives to find out what they actually want. So far this is an interesting setup, that could be used for great potential. Especially since the designers seem to have spent a lot of effort in creating an individual history of Mars and a unique philosophy of its inhabitants (as always one of the strong points of Ultima).
But in a strange twist, that comes out of the blue, this gets the cheapest resolution possible, which leaves you with the impression that the game itself tries to tell you that human bodies are just superior and everything can be resolved by killing the big bad boss. Considering the source of inspiration, i.e. pulp novels and science fiction stories, it might come at little surprise and seems to be an almost fitting conclusion. But in the end it belies that Avatar-image of yours and seems rather forced and far too easy, since everyone is totally OK with the very artificial way things turn out, without spending a second thought on the implications.
One of the main reasons for the rushed resolution of those tensions is that the game world puts a focus on quality over quantity. Mars is an almost ridiculously small place. Running around the planet takes less than an in-game day and there are only four ‘major’ settlements, which consist of about 10 houses each. And the story itself (which does not feature any side quests) is rather short, compared to the games from the main series. Yet the single details are incredibly well designed. Like the puzzles, which are rather clever and presented in a natural way, the NPCs mentioned above or all those subplots about bringing the planet back to life, which come with a great feeling of accomplishment. It is only when you take a look at the grander picture, that you recognise that they do not quite fit together, respectively that there are some discrepancies.
There is one feature that is really outstanding though, a part of the game that really makes up for some shortcomings: The dreams. Like the name of the game hints at – even more so the introduction, where you have a little chat with a certain Herr Freud – they take a very prominent role over the course of the game. Their implementation has to be one of the finest hours of video gaming. You will come across some outright weird imagery and probably the most creative puzzles to be solved in a role playing game. But there is something about it that makes them really fascinating from a meta-game-perspective too.
Let us take a step back and look at it from the following angle: Have you ever kept a dream diary? If not you probably should, because you would not believe what strange thoughts and impressions your brain comes up with while you are sleeping. The longer you take a look at your dreams, the more you will notice, that there are two things in particular which are kind of striking: Everything bears importance, every detail is filled with gravitas, whether it is intense feelings or an especially vivid memory, and it is there for a reason. And all of it is connected by dream logic, that is one thing will remind you of another which will lead up to yet another one, ending in a walk through your mindscape, which is a reflection of the real world on yourself, the way you interpret and simplify your surroundings, so you can make sense of it.
Now, compare this to a computer game: See the similarities? How each object is defined with a function in mind and how they are set up to interlock in a way that will guide you through the planned course of the game?makes good use of this parallels by introducing a dream world in which things that usually appear artificial in puzzle design and story telling become only natural. Suddenly solving riddles does not need an overly convoluted background, they do not have to be wrapped up in a complex narrative. On the contrary, the absurder the situation the more it feels like a dream. How else could it be possible to help Lenin equally share the riches of the world in the most literal sense and only five minutes later cross a Mississippi made of stars on a sky barge with a prolific American writer?
Which is not to say that dreams do not need any context at all. The more memorable dreams are not just some random nonsense but draw inspiration from reality. It is a lot of fun to interpret dream images and gain some insight into what is going on while you are awake. Something which the designers seem to have been quite aware of, so they did not solely rely on the novelty factor of the dream state but also built a rather strong ordinary game around it and connected the two of them. Take the examples above: While they are certainly entertaining, taken on their own you would not take them serious, they would just be jokes and build no tension at all. But while the game asks you to do a lot of strange things while dreaming, it never fails to give you a reason to do so. Your actions here do have an influence on the waking world, or to be more blunt on your progress in the game. This makes the whole experience quite exciting and fulfilling, because even if it is not real (not even in the game’s world) there is something at stake.
On top of that, while the designers might have slightly fumbled the conclusion ofin the game’s waking world, the dream world episodes end in a very satisfying finale, that brings out the best of the game. That is you enter a place beyond you wildest dreams to meet some memorable antagonists, with a clear motivation and even some links to your past, and beat them not by hitting them over the head but using yours instead to solve some creatively designed puzzles, which need a bit of lateral thinking but are all the more satisfying for it.
Overall, if you can bear the slightly clunky (but still functional) interface and play your role playing games rather for their story and character interaction than for endless stat grinding and looting, this might be just your cup of tea. It might also be worth a try for adventure game fans, because although it involves some combat and levelling, with the heavy focus on puzzle solving and talkingis a lot closer to that genre than the one it is often filed under.