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Ultima Forever for iOS Review: Venerable RPG Tarnished By IAPs

MassPort_AppChronLogoWhen Electronic Arts announced that they were bringing the venerable Ultima franchise to mobile, many fans cheered. Then they told us that it was going to be a freemium game, and those cheers turned to groans. Could EA, who have become pretty big in the freemium space, pull off a playable Ultma game without falling into the IAP trap? We know the answer now, as Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar hit the App Store this week.

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If you’re not familiar with the Ultima series, then you must be either under 16 or someone who doesn’t regularly play RPGs. During my most formative years, Ultima was in the middle of a twenty-year run of producing engaging, memorable RPGs. Since the last PC game was released in 1999, the series has mainly been kept alive by Ultima Online (and the forgettable Lords of Ultima).

UF represents the first Ultima game in over a decade that returns to the old RPG style. If you’re familiar with the Ultima games then UF will be easy to pick up. It’s pretty standard get quest / complete quest / turn in quest stuff, but with that Ultima flavor. There’s also the Virtue system, originally introduced in Ultima IV, which means you can develop your character in different ways … ways that can impact which quest chains you get access to, how characters react to you, and even which items you might use.

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The game itself is fun enough. Running around cities and villages, travelling across the map, and navigating dungeons are all accomplished by a tap-to-move or hold-to-move control which annoyed me slightly, as it means there’s no way to pan/scroll the screen, but I quickly got used to it. Combat is mostly automatic: tap an enemy and you’ll lock onto them, attacking whenever you can (even if you move between strikes). You can trigger powers with slots on the left. It’s a pretty low-impact interface that gets the job done. I would even say that the devs have done a pretty fair job of capturing that Ultima essence.

But then there’s the Keys. As you quest, your life is controlled by Keys. Keys will quickly become the focus of your adventuring and the bane of your existence.

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Here’s how it works: Whenever you encounter a chest (and there are a lot of them) you have the option of opening the chest with Bronze, Silver, or Gold keys. And not just one key! It costs multiple keys of any type to open a chest. The kind of Keys you use determine the quality of the loot you get. Bronze Keys unlock okay items; Silver Keys unlock better items; and Gold Keys unlock the best items.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Gold Keys are the insidious IAP element of the game. They are hard to get in the game; in my time with the game I found myself with a dozen or so, generally in the tutorial. Once I’d spent those opening a few chests though, more were glacially slow in coming. And remember, it doesn’t take one Key to open a chest; it takes 8 Gold Keys to get a rare item. This seems odd if you think of them as keys; but remember you’re not really unlocking the chest, you’re paying to open it.

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And that’s where the IAP starts to bite you.  Gold keys are EVERYTHING in this game. The items you get for Gold Keys are so much better, for one. With Rare items I danced through the first few dungeons; but once I ran out and began hitting harder challenges I was pining for better rares. For another, your item and ability slots are also locked behind a gold key paywall — a PER CHARACTER paywall. In short: if you want to play the game to its fullest, you’ll want Gold Keys. And that means paying up.

Without Rare items, you’ll be almost forced to join up with other players. Oh, did I mention this is a MMO? It is, though in this first week most of the people I encountered seemed happy to play solo. The MMO element feels like a skin on top of a solo Ultima game, and I think all we players felt it. The chat channel has been nearly dead in the time I’ve been online, and my one group dungeon experience was thoroughly lackluster.

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In the months leading up to the release of Ultima Forever, there had been a widely reported comment that the devs were considering a “buy in” option, where players could pay one price to just unlock the whole game. There were never details on how that might work (would items simply spawn by rarity?) but so far the option isn’t there. And that’s a shame because if I had the option of just playing this solo as a mobile version of the Ultima games, offline and sans IAP, I’d probably leap at the chance.

Ultimately, I won’t be playing Ultima Forever forever. For now I will probably continue to quest, at least until I reach a point where the IAP-enforced power deficit becomes unbearable.

Our Score: 3 out of 5


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