The Savage Empire was the first in the regrettably short-lived Worlds of Ultima series produced by Origin in the 1990. Utilizing the same game engine as Ultima 6 with a slight graphics upgrade, the Worlds of Ultima series recast the Avatar as a pulp-style action hero, sending him on adventures heavily influenced by the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and other early science-fiction writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Savage Empire finds the Avatar trapped in the “Lost World”-like Valley of Eodon. Following in the footsteps of a previous culture-hero, the Avatar sets out on a quest to convince the scattered tribes of the valley (each descended from various aboriginal peoples from Earth), to unite against a common threat: the Myrmidex, a race of vicious, man-sized ants. Joined by the apprentice shaman Triolo, a pair of fellow earthmen, and other allies gathered along the way, the Avatar travels across Eodon, facing off against vicious dinosaurs and other prehistoric megafauna, rescuing a princess or two, overthrowing a despotic mad scientist, and generally fighting the good fight - while, incidentally, trying to figure out how to get back to his own world.
The control interface is primarily mouse-based with optional keyboard shortcuts and hotkeys. You select a command icon from the bottom of the screen and click on your target or destination in the map or inventory areas. Movement is accomplished by moving the mouse until the pointer indicates the direction you want go, then pressing or holding the left mouse button. Alternatively, you can just use the arrow keys or numberpad. Combat is turn-based and utilizes a simplistic AI for your foes and allies. The latter can be set to follow a particular routine (engage in melee, use ranged weapons, bravely run away, etc.) or switched to full manual control. NPC conversations (initiated with the Talk command) are based on typed keywords. By default, the keywords a given NPC will respond to will be highlighted in red when they bring the subject up.
In typical RPG fashion, you gain experience points (and ultimately, levels) by defeating monsters and hostile humanoids and by Ultima series tradition, your characters will also require regular food and rest in order to grow and stay healthy. Rather than rolling or assigning starting attributes, new characters go through an interview process where you answer a series of questions (presumably related to the Virtues central to most Ultima games). Your responses then shape your character's initial physical and mental makeup. However, your character's stats have very little bearing on how the game actually plays out. Even the weakest or dumbest characters can finish the game with little difficulty.
The Savage Empire also ignores the Code of Virtue central to the experience of most other Ultima games. Unburdened by the restrictions the Code normally imposes on the Avatar's behaviour, you're able to do pretty much whatever you want, consequence-free. In fact, with the lack of shopkeepers to be found, you're more or less encouraged to simply take whatever you want. Adhering to the Avatar's code of conduct will largely just result in your characters being under-equipped and starving. Personally, I think this takes away a bit of the 'Ultima-ness' of the game experience (which, perhaps, is why this side-series didn't do too well). Though it could reasonably be argued that, as the Valley itself is a holdover from a more primitive time, there's really no place in it for the Virtues or the other niceties of 'civilized' society.
Other than one or two modern implements that were transported with you, the available weapons and armor are fairly primitive - mostly stone-age versions of typical melee gear (stone blades and wooden clubs, hide armors and shields). Though with the right tools and materials, one of your companions can fashion more advanced weaponry. Magic in Eodon utilizes a more primitive, shamanistic style - spells are cast by making small offerings to one of three totemic spirits (for a total of 9 different spells) and is restricted to trained shamans. The game world itself is highly interactive and nature often provides you with a bounty of useful raw materials. You can chop down trees, dig clay, fish, make charcoal, weave cloth, harvest from plants, collect minerals, and more. And the enterprising Avatar can use these things to fashion a variety of useful items.
The graphics are typical for an RPG of the time period (that is to say, tile-based and populated with small sprites) and do a serviceable job of illustrating the world the designers probably had in mind. Though because much of the game world is an expanse of undeveloped jungle wilderness, the scenery tends to be a bit monotonous - especially since you'll probably spend much of the game having to trudge across it on foot. Combined with the relatively small area covered by the map screen, it can be easy to get lost if you stray too far from a landmark or once night falls and your viewing area is reduced by fifty percent or more (a flaw the game shares with the others that used this engine).
The musical score is quite good and its heavy reliance on percussion and synthesized woodwinds meshes nicely with the overall visual theme of the game world. The use of sound effects is kept to a bare minimum, being mostly reserved for attacks and spells. The inclusion of ambient jungle noises and calls (rather than PC-speaker bleats) for the various beasts would have been a nice touch – especially in areas where the score dies off completely. But it's not really a deal-breaker.
Long story short, The Savage Empire is a solid old-school RPG in the Ultima tradition, providing a nice change of pace from the pseudo-medieval fantasy typical of the genre while not straying too far from the conventions that made them so appealing in the first place. Definitely worth giving a shot and maybe a semi-permanent place on your hard drive.
The game will run in pure DOS or DOSBox and it will probably need to be slowed-down on modern systems. You will need the manual (included in the game extras) to answer the copy-protection question after creating your character.
Part of the Ultima Series