Excelsior, Phase One is the first of two freeware role playing games produced by 11th Dimension Entertainment. The first game is reminiscent of the early Ultima games while the second instalment looks and plays more like one of the later entries in the Ultima series. In my humble and often disregarded opinion, Excelsior Phase One trumps the lot. Well maybe it doesn’t quite “trump” the Ultima series, but it is definitely on the same level. The game is free to download and play indefinitely, however the games creators ask that you register the game if you happen like it. You don’t have to register to keep playing, but if you find yourself enjoying it there is no reason not to register you copy. However it would be more like a donation than and actual registration.
Upon opening the game, you one could be forgiven for thinking they have just discovered some long lost entry into the Ultima series, say somewhere between Ultima 4 and Ultima 5. The game plays kind of the same as well, with most the commands being reasonably similar too. Excelsior however feel a lot smoother in it’s gameplay and movement within the game world. Battles take place out in the open without shifting to a battle screen or any kind of battle mode. This means that when you see a goblin coming towards you on the world map, you can start attacking it with spells or arrows right away.
The game world works like a kind of grid. You can move up and down, left to right as well as diagonally. Very few parts of the game actually require you to move diagonally, but it can come in useful when you are in the heat of combat or are trying to avoid certain areas of the map such as rivers or swamp lands which can make you diseased. NPCs and enemies are also restricted to those directions over movement. It is a turn based game, but the great thing is that once the player makes his move and takes his turn, everything else on screen takes their turn and makes their moves at the same time. This makes battle surprisingly quick and intense.
The game has all the trappings of a decent role playing game, at least in terms of stats and character creation. There are three main stats which effect the players aptitude in battle, as well as three secondary attributes which effect other, non-battle aspects of the game, such as prices at shops and success rate when picking locks. There is also a simple scale of alignment, from good to evil with neutral being in between. Your alignment (as well as your attributes) dictate which character class you can become, however the character class itself only determines what your starting skills are and which player avatar is used. Your alignment can change during the game depending not only on your actions, but what kind of magic spell you cast. For example, if your alignment is towards evil and you constantly cast healing spells, your alignment will slowly start to move towards good.
There are a lot of skills to learn during the game, some are actually needed in order to complete the game and others are not, but most are useful. Each skill is learnt in a specific place by doing a specific action. Some can be bought in the sense that you pay someone to train you and others are triggered by specific events at random places around the world. You can pick two or three to start off with when you create you create you character, but some of these are determined by class, e.g. the Archer starts with the Marksmanship skill which makes him proficient with bows and arrows.
There is a story line that needs to be followed in order to complete the game, but the actual game world itself is completely open to exploration as soon as you get started. After the intro, which simply gives you a frame of reference for why you are where you are, you simply told to get yourself to Castle Excelsior and check the place out. The story does not, at any point, get shoved down your throat. On the contrary, you have to be the one to actively track down the story line. I recommend keeping a notebook handy (seriously) and jotting down any info you feel might be of importance or come in handy at a later date. The reason for this is two fold; people tend to give a lot of information at once, and they never repeat themselves. The general rule of thumb is that if the game switches to a full screen dialogue screen then it’s time to get the pen a paper out.
I wont spoil the plot, but I will say that while it does kind of follow the whole “there is an evil to destroy, so go out and destroy it” trend of a lot of RGPs, there are a few twists along the way as well as a few riddles and ethical questions which really do make you think.
This game really is a whole lot of awesome crammed into a old school looking RPG. Any role playing game fans out there should really give this little gem a try, you will not find yourself disappointed.