Times of Lore (1988)

Times of Lore (1988), designed by Chris Roberts, developed and published by Origin Systems

Something is rotten in the kingdom of Albareth. The high king Walvyn has gone missing and this absence has brought to surface all kinds of power struggles among the lords of the land. Then there's the problem of monsters, which have started to harass the good people of the land. Little by little, the countryside has been draining empty with the populace relocating behind the safety of city walls.
Here's where you step in. Your parents have sent you to the capitol to be safe, but you long for something more, adventure.

The first order of business is to choose who you are: a well-armoured knight, a quick Valkyrie or a savage barbarian. At first, there are some little differences between the characters, as the Valkyrie is the quickest whereas the knight has a benefit of better armour and the barbarian is the strongest. But the longer you progress, the less meaningful the differences become, as the little gear you can collect more or less evens things out.

After you've chosen your character, you are ready to roll. While Times of Lore has some very light RPG elements in it, the emphasis of the gameplay is more on action and adventuring. Besides some additional items you can get, there is no character creation nor character progression. Combat exists solely to provide means to get money in the early game as well as to top up the food rations and limited collection of spells and potions.

Speaking of loot, at least on the PC version, the spells are mostly useless, as, in order to use them, you need to go into the inventory and select the right spell. All this is done while the gameworld still runs, giving the enemies ample time to smite you down. Considering the battle is mostly useless filler, where monsters can be killed with one or two hits, it just makes more sense to either kill the enemy with the weapon you are wielding or just run away. The potions are used the same way, but those you usually use when there are no enemies around to kill you. Food is used automatically whenever the character gets hungry and you can carry up to 9 rations.

While I've not played the game on other platforms besides DOS, I've understood, that the menu system has a pause function on the other versions of the game. This change alone makes the systems more usable as well as increases the benefit of having the few magical scrolls you can have.

The additional gear you can have is nothing spectacular either. Besides your basic weapon, you can get a dagger, which is a throwing weapon that has to be picked up after each use and a magical axe which is thrown as well but returns back automatically. Then there are the ring of invisibility and the boots of agility. Boots help you move faster than the monsters and the ring is somewhat self-explanatory.

Times of Lore was also trying something different with the controls. unlike the previous Ultima titles, Origins developed, you can use a mouse to control the character. Sadly enough, the mouse controls don't quite work, as you control the character by literally moving the mouse to the direction you want to go instead of clicking or having mouse cursor indicating a direction. Moving with a mouse is, however, faster than using a keyboard, in where there is an odd lag between direction change, which makes escaping battles a bit tough at times. The input lag tied to the small screen estate on the gameworld makes at times a lot harder than it really is.

Another problem that stems from the small screen size is the number of monsters you meet. Enemies are spawned outside the screen bounds, so you can suddenly be surrounded by enemies piling on you from every side. This isn't as big of a problem outside more than it is a problem in the two dungeons you need to go through. What makes things worse is, that the dungeon monsters don't spawn extra pickups, so you have to be either lucky or be willing to play the same location again and again until you make it.

Interaction with the world is done via action keys, which include commands to speaking, using, picking up and giving. You can either use the function keys, which is the fastest way or by pressing space or right mouse button to activate the action selector. The wanted action is chosen with keys or mouse and activated by pressing enter or left mouse button.

The way combat works make things a bit hard at times, especially if you are in town. As the attack is also initiated by pressing enter, it is easy to accidentally attack people you are talking to, as you progress the discussion by pressing enter and if you do that outside the action mode, you might end up in trouble.

Game saves can be only done in the inns, where you need money to buy lodgings as well as rations. So while you don't really need that much money to get gear, as you get all the potions and scrolls by killing enemies, you do need some money to save the game.

Technically speaking, the most interesting aspect of Times of Lore is, that the occupants of the world have rudimentary schedules. People can move during the in their home locations, from their homes to the streets and the inns. At nights, they can go home and sleep in their beds.

The whole game world is also situated on the same map, from the wilderness to the towns and the houses in them. You can freely go where ever you want, with no load delays anywhere.

Times of Lore is not a game that has preserved time that well, at least as far gameplay goes. It does have a lot of interesting technical aspects in it, which were later on done much better in Ultima 6, like mouse navigation and the whole concept of living open world.

But as far for Times of Lore, the game itself feels more like a tech demo or proof of concept. The developers did achieve some interesting things with it, like NPC schedules, seamless open world navigation and day/night cycle, but as a whole, most things it has were done better later on. Some have described ToL as Zelda like, but I don't quite agree with that, not at least what comes to the amount of content or playability.

For the last thing, I do have to give a special mention for the composers of the game, Herman Miller and Martin Galway, as Times of Lore has some of the nicest Adlib music I've heard. Origin always had pretty decent music in their games, but here it is especially good. Shame there's no music during the game itself, but at least you can enjoy the tunes throughout the intro as well as the main menu.