I first played Serpent Isle in 1996, after we moved to Australia and after I’ve already finished Ultima VIII, so somewhat out of order. Whenever I revisit the game, it strikes me how different it is in spirit to its predecessor, despite being a sequel. The Black Gate has a touch of Ye Olde Renaissance Fair to it, which admittedly is a big part of its charm, but Serpent Isle is darker, grittier, with more depth and realism. There are various and very distinct cultures and societies to discover, the plot is more intricate, the conversations more sophisticated, and I love how the disparate strands of the story weave together. It makes a few ballsy choices, like turning your faithful companions into murderous monsters and killing off one of them. So why is it not my favourite Ultima? I guess it’s simply that the world of Serpent Isle doesn’t have the same grip on my heart as Britannia, or even sparks my imagination like Ultima VIII’s Pagan does, despite that game’s flaws.
The linearity of the game never really bothered me much, as I’m a creature of habit anyway and I tend to follow exactly the same pattern when replaying the game. But the fact that you need to do very particular things to trigger the next plot point could get extremely frustrating, especially when the logical connection between the two wasn’t obvious. The worst case I can think of is Batlin’s medallion, which you damn well better give to the Hound of Doskar to sniff, or you’ll be stuck for all eternity unable to enter the city in the north. The first time I got past this game bottleneck I didn’t even know what exactly have I done to turn the right conversation option on and it drove me bonkers. Another big weakness for me is the cuts to the second half of the game, resulting in a decidedly rushed feel and a dip in quality writing-wise.
Despite these complaints, Serpent Isle is a fantastic, rich tapestry of a game. Every time I finish it I think, hmm maybe it is my favourite Ultima after all.