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The sequel is even better, but you'll want to play both, November 21, 2021
I played Ultima IV first in the series, and the result was, I never quite appreciated Ultima III as much as others did. Of course I should've been glad things just got better. And I thought of that when playing 4x4 Galaxy after 4x4 Archipelago. 4x4A is, as you'd expect, the better game. It's got more things to do. But 4x4G was a lot of fun once 4x4A got too familiar, and it was neat to see how things had grown, or where a certain concept in 4x4A started. So many things were familiar from 4x4A to 4x4G, though they were simpler. Which is okay. You expect franchises to get more complex with time, and 4x4 did.
4x4G, as you'd expect, features you as an adventurer shuttling between 16 different planets as you complete one of three random quests: piecing together a map, making an engine to rescue a friend from slavers in an asteroid belt, or freeing your home planet (one of the 16) from a tyrant who serves as the final boss fight. The outer four are the most dangerous for space travel. The other edge planets are moderately tough, and the inner ones are safe. The main way to improvement here is not shooting enemy ships (experience points are not tracked here, though you may find valuables in the wreckage) but trading. While some worlds only have mines or an enemy base, others sell or buy common or exotic goods. By bouncing back and forth, you can make a quick profit. Of course, there are problems. Random adventures during space travel may result in losing goods (your hatch flew open) or just being attacked by pirates, who are more powerful than you at first. Fleeing feels wimpy, but it's okay, even if you're the stronger.
But eventually you get enough money for better ship armor or weapons for interstellar travel, or bionics to increase your own hit points. These are one- or two-time boosts maximum, which, along with 4x4G boasting only a knife and laser pistol as weapons, gives you a hint that grinding is not the way to go. If you're feeling very lucky, or you use save slots judiciously, you can maybe sneak in some trading of illicit goods. We're never told what they are, but I think it's more fun and family-friendly that way to keep it ambiguous. And it adds excitement, too: once it's in your cargo, you risk getting get caught with contraband as well, where you have several ways to try to deal with customs officers.
That is the only way to lose credits, the game's currency. It's pretty generous in helping a player who's been knocked down. Adventures in the wilderness of planets you land on give net gains on average, so even if you wind up broke, you're not stuck. And you can still take advantage of this when you're well-off. So it's not hard to just lawnmower 4x4G, once you reach a critical mass. It's possible just to buy your way to victories in critical fights with enough medkits (for your HP) or repair kits (for your ship's) since they're used instantaneously. You do wind up with a glut of credits very quickly. But I think that's a good design choice--the point is to show the randomly generated areas and quests, not to dump strategy on the player. Also, the beginning is tough, but I think it should be, because the proces of discovering what works and what doesn't is fun, and on replay, you may feel quite accomplished figuring how to start much more quickly. I did.
As in 4x4A, you don't just want to build up your credits and stats. There's also renown, which you get from returning artifacts instead of selling them at the black market, or from helping out other crafts in random adventures. Some of the big quests are guaranteed to give renown, but there are some random recurring adventures where you can farm it, and you can even get interviewed for more renown, though you need minimal renown to be famous enough. Renown eventually lets you into GalGeo, the Galatic Geographical Society, which gives one-time boosts you can't buy. From there you can start to really beat up the warships and such that seemed impossible at first. All this doesn't take very long, but there are some neat wrinkles. For instance, star crystals are a quasi-currency, and your instinct may be to sell them all. But for some quests, you need to trade star crystals for a unique item. So you can get stuck for a bit. Fortunately, random quests and fights that drop star crystals reappear, as do some incidents that help you farm renown, whereas 4x4A only lets you see them once. This means a distinct lack of urgency, but sometimes, that's a very good thing.
After a few plays through, I had a good idea of what shifted around in each play of 4x4G, and how. Unlike in 4x4A, everything gets reused, but of course "everything" encompasses a lot less. There's always a pirate, beast and alien base each, and the only question is if the map is forward/back or up/down/east/west. A fixed number of planets have mines, which have 2 different layouts. It's a very tidy game, and seeing all three quests is worthwhile. But it's a bit less replayable because the world isn't as big. So 4x4A's strategy is more complex, and there's just more to do on each island, but 4x4G is better if you have less time, and there's less nuisance over bad RNG causing you to wait on a random adventure you need for a quest. Also, the very nice autosave feature takes so much less time, because 4x4G, being smaller, demands less of Twine.
Still, whether you play 4x4G second or first, it's worth looking at both games. I liked seeing how the item selection, combat skills, and maps of mines and dungeons evolved from 4x4G to 4x4A, how there were just more and more interesting monsters and random adventures, and how certain concepts, such as finding tales from different planets/islands, got refined. I especially enjoyed seeing the in-game journal become so much more useful and informative, and the individual graphics for each island in 4x4A made it feel a lot less cold than the red, yellow and green O-shapes of 4x4G. That's not a knock on 4x4G. It clearly got the main things right and set the table for 4x4A to refine some already really good ideas, both technical and creative.