Monday, August 31, 2020

Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed: Collapsing Choices

It doesn't make any difference.
         
I pressed ahead and won Matrix Cubed last weekend, because at some point it became clear that if I stopped, I probably wouldn't start again. The game managed to go from seeming like an improvement from its predecessor to "meh" to actively pissing me off. After overcoming the bias I had built against it in the last session, it lost almost all that good will in this one.
     
When I last wrote, the Venusian scientist Leander had agreed to oversee the Matrix Device project. Needing a high-gravity environment, he and the science team departed for a laboratory in the orbit of Jupiter. Meanwhile, my next step was to find a PURGE scientist named Dr. Jerod Malcoln, who had invented an explosive radioactive gas that we need. He was probably at PURGE headquarters on Santa Catalina. SCOTT.DOS, our ship's artificial intelligence, had also identified an electronics scientist on Luna named Dr. Coldor. Buck Rogers gave us a passcode to enter a building in Losangelorg and find an agent named Red Carrin so that he could tell us how to get to Santa Catalina.
      
Buck reminds us of our current tasks.
        
We returned to Losangelorg and poked around the downtown until we found the right building. Carrin was supposed to be in Suite 5403, so we took the elevator to the 54th floor and found his suite. (The game allows you to take the elevator to any floor between 1 and 85, but most of them are just generic hallways with no encounters.) On Carrin's door, we found a note saying that he'd be in the Sparkhouse Cafe on the 85th floor, but this was crossed out and replaced with "Smoking Gun Slots on the 13th floor."
    
The 13th floor had several rooms we could enter and gamble. We tried our luck at "One-card Monte," an unsophisticated game that consists of everyone drawing one card, making a round of bets, and awarding the pot to the person with the highest card. Somehow I won almost $5,000 with my queen of hearts.
       
"War" was too complicated for you fellows, huh?
        
Anyway, the crossed-out part of the note on Carrin's door was a ruse meant to lure unsuspecting victims into an ambush. A panhandler warned us of this after we gave him a few credits. We tripped the ambush anyway because no one ever earned experience for walking away from a fight.
    
After mopping the floor with the robbers, we went to the 85th floor and found Carrin in the cafe. After a brief conversation, he gave us a passcard that would allow us to take his boat from the docks. As we took the elevator back down, I couldn't help but think that in the 25th century, there ought to be some easier way for six people to get to an island twenty-six miles offshore.
      
I'd work for anyone, even the NEO, who could float me to my island dream.
         
We also, of course, pondered what calamity must have occurred to move Santa Catalina closer to the mainland, move it about forty miles north-northwest, enlarge it, and change its shape. 
    
Wilma Deering, Buck Rogers' girlfriend, approached the party as we landed, offering no explanation as to how she got to the island. It's a minor issue, but the phrase "offering no explanation" is going to become a big part of the Matrix Cubed narrative from now on, so we might as well ramp up. She said she'd been scouting the headquarters and had identified two ways inn: smooth talk the receptionist in the lobby and hack the security doors in the maintenance tunnel.
      
One also wonders why a secret island facility belonging to a terrorist organization needs a receptionist.
            
We chose to try the receptionist. Elias, who has the highest skills in persuasion, passed his skill check, and we got in. For a while, we wandered the first floor, listening in on PURGE conversations and meetings. In a conference room, some members were talking about broadcasting a subliminal message using a satellite signal. In another room, a printing press churned out PURGE brochures.
     
Eventually, we came across a PURGE Commander Sooth talking to a subordinate, and they recognized us as infiltrators. An alarm went off, and the game was on. We were attacked by a variety of PURGE forces in most rooms and intersections.
     
The beginning of another PURGE battle.
            
We continued to explore the base, eventually transitioning to a second floor. We rescued Dr. Romney, inventor of the Matrix Device, from a jail cell. We wiped out a squad in a control room and found evidence on a computer that a PURGE team was attacking a Desert Runner radio station near the edge of the desert. In Commander Sooth's office, we found a letter from Sid Refuge, the cyborg, indicating that he'd recovered from his defeat on Venus. A laboratory held evidence that PURGE had been experimenting with subliminal writing. Most important, a logbook described an "anti-personality" virus called Bug Nine created by PURGE engineers.
      
Every time I have to read something in the paper logbook, it feels like a little piece of my soul dies.
           
Finally, we wandered into a room and found Commander Sooth sitting in a chair with a bunch of electrodes stuck to his head. Technicians were transferring his consciousness into a computer, to make him an artificial personality like SCOT.DOS. They finished just as we arrived. After a few more battles, we came across Dr. Malcoln taking orders from Sooth's voice, coming out of a computer. Yet another battle ensued, in which we killed Dr. Malcoln.
     
This would be a good place to mention that battles from this point forward were fought almost entirely with explosives. I'd found enough rocket launchers, plasma-throwers, and grenade launchers during the last session that I didn't have to worry about scrimping. Since enemies all have explosives, too, it would have been irresponsible not to use them.
      
A rocket launcher blasts some technicians.
       
The problem is that you can only use these explosive devices once every two rounds. To operationalize this rule, the game makes the process of equipping the weapon take a full round, and it then un-equips it every time you use it. After combat, you have to remember to re-equip all the items or else you'll waste the first round of your next combat equipping them.
     
Combats soon fell into a predictable rhythm of all my characters blasting the hell out of the enemies in the first round, then mopping up what was left with regular weapons in the second round. In the few major battles in which a substantial number of enemies were left after the first round, I would usually have some characters throw explosive grenades. (You can only use the launcher, which has a much greater range, every two rounds, but you can throw as often as you want.) I still used chaff grenades occasionally, when facing a large number of enemies (particularly robots) with their own explosives, but for the most part the power of the explosive weapons made the game feel a lot less tactical, much like having eight or ten "Fireball" spells memorized ruins things in the Dungeons and Dragons Gold Box titles.
     
Anyway, we fought our way into a computer room, where Theta Sigma used his "Programming" skill to access the Bug Nine virus and send it after the newly-created SOOTH.DOP, killing the artificial intelligence in its first hour. (Given all the body parts in the rooms behind us, I don't know why this felt particularly mean, but it did.) With Sooth dead, we retrieved Dr. Malcon's notes about Efanite, the explosive gas needed for the Matrix Device.
   
Sooth is unfortunately wrong about both things.
        
This episode is the first of another trend that dogged me through the rest of the game: progress gated by skill checks. I don't know for sure that there's no way to finish this mission without someone with sufficient "Programming" skill, but I do know that I couldn't find one. I had to reload several times before Theta Sigma passed the necessary checks. Later in the game, I had even worse problems. Not only do many episodes require checks, many of the thresholds are quite high. Given all the skills that exist in the game, you'd have to have some prior knowledge that some of them were used at all before you would bother investing points into them.
    
The game makes the whole process difficult in a few other ways, too. First, you can only learn one new skill per level-up. So if you started the game with only, say, five skills, the most you'll ever get in Matrix is maybe ten, and you certainly wouldn't have time to build the last few to any reasonable level. Second, you can't choose skills for new characters; the game does that for you. So if you find yourself lacking in "Programming," you can't whip up a new temporary character with a massive focus in "Programming" to save the day. We'll see later moments were this issue got a lot worse.
      
A lot worse.
         
As we left the facility and took the boat back to the mainland, I decided to comprehensively explore the Losangelorg metro area to see if the PURGE raid in the Desert Runners' radio station was actually something we could intercept. I also wanted to see if there were any other encounters on the outdoor map. It turns out that there weren't many, but a slew of random encounters with various  "gennies" probably added one to our final levels by the end of the game.
     
This is feeling a lot like a Fallout game.
       
We did eventually find the radio station, run by a Desert Runner named "Bad Dog." PURGE forces had thrown him out and were using his equipment to broadcast their anti-gennie propaganda. Once again, I have to emphasize that I don't know why we're against this. We just killed a few hundred gennies in the desert right outside the radio station door. Who is pro-giant scorpion? But we still defeated the PURGE forces and yanked their agent off the air.
       
This is feeling even more like a Fallout game.
              
We returned to Salvation, where Buck Rogers thanked us and said he'd send the Efanite files to Leander. That left our only mission to find Dr. Coldor on Luna. The Moon, if I haven't already covered it, is actually not a part of the New Earth Organization, but rather an independent colony with strict isolationist tendencies. To get there, I had to launch my ship, fly one square away from Earth, fly one square back to Earth, and choose to land on either Tycho or Copernicus. (Incidentally, half the time that you're on approach to a planet like this, the solar system suddenly rotates out from under you, putting your destination an extra few squares in front of you or even behind you.) It turns out that Tycho is just a menu town--we stopped in just long enough to get thrown out of a bar--and Copernicus is the actual destination.
      
I can only land at one place on Earth, which is four times as large, but the moon is parceled out.
            
As we arrived at Copernicus, we received a notice that our ship was impounded and that we should report to a Lt. Jenner. As we made our way to the police station, we saw Dr. Coldor getting into a jetcar with the "Tsai Weaponry" logo. We tried to approach her, but she said that "NEO has her services" and told us to get lost before we could explain that we were NEO and that whoever had her services definitely was not.
 
At the police station, Lt. Jenner explained that Luna is filthy with corruption, and that the police chief, Senator Koi, and the CEO of Tsai Weaponry are involved in a major conspiracy. He promised that if we could collect enough evidence against them, he'd help us collect Dr. Coldor and get our ship back. He gave us fake police badges to assist.
      
That was easy.
         
The rest of the map was a bit tedious, as we ran around from building to building--the offices and houses of the three major players--collecting intelligence. The process was annoyingly linear. For instance, the first time we visited Chief McKay's house, we found nothing. But later, we found a computer entry that mentioned a logbook. When we returned and looked again, we found the logbook.
    
So we had to visit the various places in the right order, then call the suspects to tell them we had dirt on them so Jenner could raid the subsequent meeting. I got sick of the whole thing in the middle of it and tried to just force my way into Tsai Weaponry, but automated laser cannons kept doing scripted damage to the party as we tried to explore the complex. These cannons weren't there when we did things "honestly."
     
Way to facilitate role-playing, guys.
        
So we followed the game's chosen path and got the police chief, senator, and CEO arrested for conspiracy, and Lt. Jenner gave us a pass to get into Tsai. We explored their headquarters (another 16 x 16 map) long enough to find Dr. Coldor consorting with Sid Refuge from PURGE. What is it with this organization? No one had heard of them two weeks ago, and now they have a headquarters on an island and have tendrils into every faction in the solar system.
    
Coldor learned at this point that she had been working for a bunch of lunatics. Apparently, Tsai had been creating some kind of chemical (confusingly called a "mutagen") capable of killing genetically-engineered creatures. Refuge had a little speech about it:
       
NEO's propaganda has served PURGE well. I recruited this scientist on your reputation. The pap of genetic mongrels living in harmony with the pure race fools so many people. They are blind to the inevitability of conflict. Either the pure strain will survive unsullied, or humanity will revert to packs of mindless animals!
       
I'm more confused than ever about PURGE's philosophy. Does Refuge think that humans are mating with gennies? Even if that were biologically possible, I haven't seen any evidence of it. Anyway, Refuge took off with Coldor, forcing us to follow them through the base. At various points, we were menaced by "plant gennies" that were just the same graphic as Bits o' Moander from Pools of Darkness.
       
They arguably make more sense in this context.
            
It became clear that PURGE or Tsai was about to launch a rocket containing the mutagen, somehow causing it to spread throughout the galaxy. We burst into the launch pad just as it was preparing to launch. While the party fought a big group with Refuge and his commandos . . .
     
This, like all situations, seems like a good situation for a rocket launcher.
      
. . . Dr. Coldor sneaked aboard the rocket and overrode the automatic controls. As we watched Refuge's cyborg corpse somehow escape yet again, we receive word from SCOT.DOS that Coldor had joined NEO and was taking the equipment and mutagen to the Matrix Device project at Jupiter. The police arrived to sweep everything up, and Luna officials thanked us while simultaneously inviting us never to visit the moon again.
    
As we blasted off from Luna, an explosion rocked the Maelstrom Rider, and radiation levels began to increase. The computer reported a 98% chance that the ship would soon explode. We couldn't seem to do anything to fix it, and the game clearly wanted us to escape in a pod, so we reluctantly took that option.
    
We get the hint.
         
As the pod sailed away, the party was surprised to see that the ship didn't explode, and instead flew "gracefully out of sight." Meanwhile, our pod was picked up by a ship called Rogue, captained by someone named Killer Kane. I was obviously supposed to recognize him from the game's setting, so I took some time to read up on him, which left me more confused than ever, because in no version does he seem to be depicted as the roguish "frenemy" of Rogers as he does here.
         
Well, I'm surely not going to call you "Killer."
         
Kane proposed an exchange: He would set us free if we agreed to infiltrate and help destroy a RAM cruiser called Deimos, which was transporting a "high-level Mercurian official" to Mars. This reminded me that well into the game, "De Sade" hasn't made a return appearance, suggesting all the intrigue on Mercury at the beginning of the game had nothing to do with the plot. This would turn out to be true; I never heard from De Sade again. Even the whole issue with Mercurian forces invading Venus turned out to be a mystery.
     
The game offered me the option of accepting Kane's offer, and I was feeling ornery by this point, so I said no. Matrix is the most linear of the Gold Box series, much more so than Countdown, which let you visit the planets and asteroids in almost any order. Here, we've had the choice of which of two missions to do first and second, but that's about it. This extends to not even providing alternate ways to solve puzzles that require skill checks.
    
In response, Kane shoved us back into our escape pod and said, "Good luck drifting." Well, we hadn't been drifting long before we were picked up by . . . the RAM cruiser Deimos. On which Killer Kane was somehow also taken prisoner in the hour since we saw him last. So that turned out to be another Morton's Fork.
      
A whole hour! Noooooooooo.
        
In the Deimos's brig, we were contacted by a RAM agent named "Oiler" who let us out of the cell and gave us explosives to plant in the weapons control room. Deimos was five levels, all of them relatively small, but we had to backtrack a lot, finding a keycard in on one floor that would let us through a door on another floor, and so forth. If there were battles, I didn't bother to take any screen shots; my recollection is that RAM crew seemed easily fooled by our lack of outfits or any identifying insignia.
     
We placed the explosive charges in the right place, but I don't think they were ever set off. As we left the room, we found ourselves surrounded by RAM bots who offered us a choice of surrendering or not. Either answer (I reloaded to be sure) led to them blasting us with sonic stunners and us waking up in a prison on Mars, so that was another choice they need not have offered.
     
The sun being too bright is a good sign we're not actually on Mars.
        
We awoke in a prison cell. For the second time in the game--but not the last--we were stripped of all equipment. The cell was made to resemble the Martian surface and extended infinitely in all directions.

Buck Rogers soon appeared. He said that when our ship returned to Salvation empty, he blasted off in search of us, found our pod, but was knocked out by gas and similarly awoke in this cell. This story makes no sense, as Rogers is a commander and shouldn't be soloing on rescue missions, but nevertheless, there we were. Rogers had his .45 automatic because it's so old that our RAM captors hadn't even recognized it as a weapon. Moments after Rogers joined us, so did Killer Kane, whose appearance makes even less sense.
     
And we had no idea, when we rejected you, that we'd end up in the same party. Though in retrospect, maybe we should have.
       
After finding nothing in our lateral explorations, Rogers suggested that we explore vertically. We dug down and hit a metal floor. Rogers then suggested we try to reach the "ceiling" via a human pyramid, with him and Kane as the base and the most athletic person at the top. Unfortunately, my "most athletic" person lacked the "Climb" skill to make it to the top, plus the "Acrobatics" skill to make it from the top of the pyramid through a hatch on the ceiling.
     
Spoiler: he failed.
      
In multiple re-tries, he kept falling and taking damage, and because the game offers no way to heal characters except at the end of combats, I eventually had to stop trying and use my second-most-agile character instead. And so on from him to the third. After about 15 minutes of this, the game took pity on me and let me succeed. I know it did because the character who finally got through the hatch had no "Climb" or "Acrobatics" skill at all. Incidentally, Rogers and Kane both have decent skills at both, but they insisted they had to form the base of the pyramid.
     
It turned out that my problems were just beginning. On the top side of the hatch was a gennie guard dog with about 76 hit points, and all I had to fight him were my puny fists. Even Austin, who had the highest number of hit points and the best chance of succeeding at hand-to-hand combat, was unable to kill the creature. Defeat means the character gets kicked back down the hole, the pyramid collapses, and we have to start over again.
    
In case it's not clear, this is when the "actively pissing me off" stage began.
      
The obvious solution, which somehow didn't occur to me, was to take Rogers' handgun. But I later consulted several walkthroughs and videos, and none of them offered it as a solution, so I suspect Rogers won't give up the weapon. If I'm wrong and someone has done this, please tell me. Meanwhile, all the walkthroughs and videos offered the same solution that ultimately worked for me: lower the difficulty level so that the enemy hit points get lowered. I hated, hated, hated doing this, but the damned dog was simply mathematically unbeatable without it. I thought maybe a character who specialized in unarmed combat could do it, but later I checked and found that's not even an option.
      
With the difficultly lowered, Austin was able to defeat the creature and then drop a cable to haul everyone up. Our problems didn't end there, though. The two-level prison that ensued offered combats with more dogs, robots, and other prisoners, all of which we had to fight bare-handed except for Rogers' gun, which we no longer had after Rogers suggested that we "split up." Kane fled shortly after we got out of the cell.
    
Since you have the only weapon, that seems like a really bad idea.
        
This was the only area of the game that I mapped myself, and only long enough to test various paths and determine that they led to dead-ends, or unwinnable battles. We ultimately found our way to a storage room and our equipment. Shortly after, we freed a "Stormrider" named Natbakka. He had been an ambassador to the Amaltheans, but they sold him to RAM. This story sent me back to the logbook to remind myself about the backstory. Stormriders are supposedly genetically-modified humans (though they don't look much like it) who live in high-pressure cities above the moons of Jupiter. Amaltheans are humans living on one of Jupiter's moons; they created the Stormriders in the first place but are now hostile to them.
       
I shudder to think what my brain is overwriting in order to learn this lore.
      
We found a computer console that allowed us to reach SCOT.DOS, who told us that he had found evidence of a spy at the NEO. Then some virus started attacking him, and we had to try to stop it through some confusing menu process that I didn't understand, and for which Theta Sigma kept failing his "Programming" checks anyway. At the end of the process, SCOT.DOS was dead, which I'm not sure wasn't scripted. If so, they should have just made it seem like it was scripted instead of making it seem like a character failed a skill check.
        
To be honest, I only ever vaguely understood who he was.
       
Buck Rogers rejoined us; we fought one final battle against RAM forces; and a NEO ship dropped in to rescue us. Soon after, we were finally back at Salvation. I felt like I had been through so much that my entire team should be able to level up, but only one person could.

That gets us far enough that I should be able to cover the rest of the game in one entry. By this time, the false choices and linearity were getting annoying, the skill checks were getting infuriating, and the combat was getting boring. You can see why I just pushed through to the end.
     
Time so far: 21 hours

Friday, August 28, 2020

Game 377: Wizardry: Suffering of the Queen (1991)

Titles online often include Gaiden after Wizardry or include "Episode 1." Neither is present on the title screen. I believe even the original Japanese title screen was in English.
         
Wizardry: Suffering of the Queen
Japan
ASCII (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for Game Boy
Date Started: 18 August 2020
Date Ended: 21 August 2020
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at time of posting: 263/379 (69%)
     
The eight games in the Wizardry series are well known to western CRPG players. It is arguably the most influential series of all time (although it was itself heavily influenced by the early PLATO titles), spawning The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, and Dungeon Master lines, and even influencing Exodus: Ultima III. I still find the original Wizardry (1981) remarkable for its combat tactics and the exquisite tension that it builds as you explore each level and cope with the specter of permadeath.
            
Combat in this game is identical to the western Wizardry titles.
         
What most western players probably don't realize is that the series has a life in Japan that, at least quantitatively, exceeds its legacy in the United States. In addition to the influential translations of the original games, Japan saw more than ten original titles and remakes for the Game Boy, PlayStation, NES, SNES, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3 between 1991 and 2013, plus a 2013 MMORPG called Wizardry Online (2013). These games weren't just unauthorized knockoffs seeking to capitalize on the Wizardry name. As we'll soon see, you're more likely to untangle Jarndyce v. Jarndyce than figure out who actually owns the rights to the series, but the earliest Japanese titles, at least, were developed under license from Sir-Tech, and they take thematic elements from the western games.
          
The party explores the dungeon. The interface elements go away until you call for them.
         
Commenter Alex has written a guest entry on the Japanese Wizardry series, which I'll publish soon, but to put it in context, I wanted to take a look at the first of the series, Suffering of the Queen, after having first familiarized myself with the Game Boy by playing its first RPG offering. Suffering is the first of a pair of Game Boy titles published by ASCII; the second, Curse of the Ancient Emperor, would follow in 1992. Suffering is something of a sequel to Wizardry II and III in that it takes place in Llylgamyn and references the Staff of Gnlida. I'm playing a fan translation from about 2013.
         
Credits for the translation.
          
I was surprised to see that aside from some minor graphical and mechanical differences, Suffering plays almost exactly like an early-1980s Wizardry scenario. You create a party of six characters from the same races and classes; you have a menu town on top of a multi-leveled dungeon. The shop names are the same; combat works the same; spells are not only the same but have the same nonsense names (mercifully "translated" in the English patch). The navigational obstacles that you face, traps, item identification, and character leveling systems all work the same. So much is the same that a veteran Wizardry player would only have to be told about a few minor differences. The authors were clearly trying to bring the Wizardry I-III console experience directly to a handled device.
  
As Suffering opens, the player is dropped without comment into the menu town of Llylgamyn, presented graphically instead of textually. Icons correspond to the major service locations: Boltac's (shop), Gilgamesh's Tavern, the temple, the inn, the guild, and the dungeon entrance.
           
Llylgamyn is a graphical menu town.
          
One difference from the earlier series is that the castle is a visitable location, and it's here that you get rare updates to the game's plot. When you visit the first time, you learn: "The traitor Taros is pursuing forbidden research in the dungeon. Disaster struck insistently in the past year. The power protecting Llylgamyn weakens. Now the people are murmuring about Princess Sorx. She vanished mysteriously at midnight." External sites clarify that Sorx is the queen's sister, but they give her name as Sokusu and the villain's name as, amusingly, Thailand Rossum. I don't know if the shorter versions are just a way to abbreviate them for the screen or if they're choices made by the English translators.
        
The titular queen doesn't show up until the endgame.
        
Characters are created from humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and hobbits and good, neutral, and evil alignments. Then a pool of "bonus" points is distributed among strength, intelligence, piety, vitality, speed, and luck, with the base values having been determined by race. The attribute allocation determines what classes are available: fighter, mage, thief, priest, samurai, lord, bishop, and ninja. As in the original game, the bonus pool is usually 7-10 points but then occasionally rockets up to 18-20.  You need such luck to start as any of the prestige classes; even then, some of the classes are out of the reach of a starting character. You cannot mix good and evil characters in the same party.
           
Creating a new character.
           
After character creation, I was thrown when I found that Boltac's shop was "SOLD OUT" of most of the basic starter equipment, but it turns out in this version, characters start with a basic set of weapons and armor in their possession. As you find better stuff in the dungeon, it's not "+1" or "+2," but rather an escalating set of synonyms for the base weapon. For instance, swords progress along the line of sword, rapier, epee, katana, and cutlass. Ultra high-level items are given special names like "Saber of Evil" and "Mjollnir." The same weird "invoke" system is present where you can sacrifice some pieces of equipment for permanent attribute changes.
      
The dungeon beneath the castle is six or twelve (see below) levels of 16 x 16, slightly smaller than the original games, likely to make the automap fit on the smaller screen. The game has a competent automap, called by the DUMAPIC spell (in the original, it just gave coordinates and facing direction), but I mapped the first six levels myself just so I'd have something to do. (Later, the "Teleport" spell, MALOR, also makes use of the automap.) Also, the multiple interconnected stairways, chutes, and teleporters are hard to understand unless you experience and annotate them yourself.
         
My maps of the first six levels. Darkened squares are literally dark squares (no light works), not indications that you can't go there.
       
The features of the first three games are all here: random and fixed encounters, messages, traps, chutes, teleporters, spinners, dark squares, locked doors, hidden doors, one-way doors. There's even an elevator. The major changes that I see are:
      
  • None of the levels wrap east-west or north-south.
         
The automap works extremely well in this game, but it doesn't annotate teleporters.
        
  • The bestiary is a mix of enemies from the early Wizardry games and some invented for this game. As far as I can tell, the artwork is original even when a creature's name is re-used from an earlier Wizardry.
         
"Nocorns" were in Wizardry II or III, but this is a new graphic.
         
  • You select spell and trap names from a list instead of typing them. In the case of spells, the English patch translators put the spell effects in the list rather than the original names (e.g., MAHALITO, MOLTO), which is a big bonus.
         
The mage's available spells for each slot appear as a list.
           
  • The thief character is a lot more successful in disarming traps than in my experiences with the DOS versions of Wizardry I-III.
  • Spellcasters have to rest to restore spell slots; they don't replenish automatically upon leaving the dungeon.
  • Instead of encountering "friendly" monsters occasionally, you oddly get the option to "hunt" some monsters if you want to be evil or leave them alone if you want to be good.
          
The only way to show virtue in the game.
         
  • You can't just walk through walls to find secret doors; you have to "Search" for them. Once found, the door remains visible for the rest of the game.
       
This difference is explained in a message square.
       
  • The early game is notably easier than in the originals. Full-party death is rare.
  • You can manually save the game while in the middle of a dungeon and restore from that point.
       
I'm sure there are other differences--it's been a long time since I've played any of the early Wizardry titles--but most of the ones I listed are positive. (And for all I know, some or all of them were present in the Japanese console ports of the original games.) Everything else, the authors imported faithfully, even the stuff that didn't make a lot of sense, such as the bishop getting struck with fear while trying to identify equipment or characters sometimes losing attributes when leveling up. Murphy's Ghost even appears as a repeating fixed encounter on Level 2, although he's not worth quite as much experience.
         
My thief's inventory late in the game.
          
Suffering even mimics the first games' approach to saving and permadeath. Everything that happens in the town gets automatically saved, and you can manually save in dungeons for later play. But character deaths and full-party deaths get immediately written to the file, so you can't reload to cheat them. (You can still sort-of cheat by "taking out the batteries" the moment it's clear death is imminent.) If the full party dies, you can have another party find their bodies and bring them back to town for resurrection. In general, character state is independent from, and more important than, game state, as most places that are gated are gated by inventory. Still, I'm not entirely sure how the game determines that a particular character (especially if he's assembled into a new party) has already unlocked a particular door or seen a particular message.
          
Gideon levels up and gains intelligence.
         
Combat is easier, but there's sill a lot of variability, and you have to make your decision carefully about when you're ready to descend to the next level. You also have to be careful about saving spell slots for the return journey and keeping an eye on exactly how you'll get back home. I love the tension--the palpable fear--that the first game manages as you constantly decide whether to push forward or play it safe. Some of the most delicious moments are those when you get teleported, or sent down a chute, and you don't know how to get home.
         
The party surprises an enemy party.
         
I also always enjoy the early Wizardry attention to combat tactics, with its magic system exquisitely balanced so you never have quite enough spell slots to feel comfortable. Do I blast this enemy party with a LAHALITO and a BARIKO just to be sure, or do I spread out the damage to two parties and hope that the dice go my way? Do I spend this Level 5 cleric slot on a DIALMA (healing) for my main character, or do I save it for a BADI (death) against my next high-level foe? My opinion is that the original authors got the spell system exactly right back in 1981, and every attempt to change it has ruined the balance. Suffering doesn't really change it.
         
My bishop casts a mass-damage spell.
       
Most of the game is fighting combats, leveling the characters, and exploring the next square. Eventually, you do hit some plot developments. A fixed combat on Level 3 leads to a teleporter that takes you to a hidden area on Level 2, where a woman gives you a silver key and a message to pass on to the queen: "Nemesis is drawing near. Doom will devour Llylgamyn." If you go back to the castle after this encounter, you meet with some "wise men" who give you a little more information about the main plot, including the fact that the missing Sorx is the queen's sister. The key, meanwhile, opens the way to an elevator on Level 1, making visits to the first five levels much faster.
           
Hence, the title.

           


On Level 5, you have to assemble a time bomb out of a clock and a chest of explosives (purchased from an "old man" in a separate encounter) to blast the way down to the sixth level.

            
If it weren't for this sign, we probably wouldn't have even thought of it.
         
The sixth level has numerous teleporters connecting its various sections and lots of squares that automatically warp the party back to the town. Eventually, you find your way to the ultimate encounter with Taros, who attacks with a high-level fighter named "Flack." Flack is capable of poisoning and stoning with his weapon, and Taros can cast the TILTOWAIT ("nuke") spell, so this is the time to unleash everything you have. I stupidly played with a mage, a cleric, and a bishop in my back three (I always fall for the idea that the bishop will be useful) instead of two mages or two clerics, so it took me a few tries to beat Taros.
        
My cleric damages Taros in the big battle.
        
You get an orb when you beat him--it wouldn't be a Japanese game without an orb--and a teleporter in the chamber beyond warps you back to the town. If you visit the castle at this point, you see the queen herself and get a series of screens that together seem like an endgame message:
     
The queen sits on the throne. A tinge of grief is on her face. "Llylgamyn and I applaud you for your courage and wisdom." You are awarded a title. "I will go on fighting for my people alone." The queen smiles faintly. "Thank you. Now go and rest." However, everyone knows it's just the beginning. Peace is finally restored to Llylgamyn. However, secrets still lurk elsewhere . . .
      
Doesn't this seem like a winning screen?
         
I thought that was a pretty definitive endgame message, if a bit enigmatic in translation and obviously setting up a sequel, so imagine my surprise when I was visiting some web sites post-game and found that there are actually six more levels! There's another teleporter in the room beyond Taros that takes you to a new dungeon of six more levels. Apparently, the big boss in the second half is Sorx, although none of the walkthroughs I consulted really explained how she turned into a villain.
         
I thought I'd won, but the game offers to take me to even more adventures.
        
The game apparently wraps up on five levels of the second dungeon, but there's a sixth level that features even tougher monsters in case you want to continue building your party. According to the sites I consulted, if you could find one of every item in the game and sell it to Boltac, you'll be rewarded with The Book of Nature, a special item containing the passwords necessary to transfer your characters into other Wizardry games.
     
I started playing the second half, even getting my characters to a high enough level that my mage could cast the MALOR spell, but I ran out of steam. As much as I was enjoying this return to basic Wizardry, it was taking time away from my main list, and I don't think I was really discovering anything new. In fact, the fun drops significantly for me once the characters are capable of casting every spell in the game; there's much less to look forward to with each level-up (which occur at more distant intervals anyway). I don't know if I "won" the game or not. The messages I got suggested that I completed the main quest and that the rest of the game is a kind of bonus challenge, much like the "second round" of The Legend of Zelda or the "Phase 2" of Dragon Slayer.
       
The box made use of the traditional Wizardry font and logo.
         
Suffering was directed by Hiroshi Mita, who had directed the Japanese NES conversions of the first three Wizardry titles between 1987 and 1990, so it makes sense that this adaptation hewed so closely to their formula. He would later go on to direct the conversion of Wizardry V in 1992 and Bane of the Cosmic Forge in 1995. Although he wasn't involved, ASCII's follow-up, Curse of the Ancient Emperor (1992), seems to use the same engine, although telling a more original and expansive story. A third handheld Wizardry, Summoner, was published in 2001 by Media Rings for the Game Boy Advance, but even it uses the traditional mechanics (with significant graphical upgrades).
     
I was surprised to find a game that followed the original Wizardry template so closely, and thus had a better time than expected. It is markedly different than The Final Fantasy Legend in tone, but I suspect its strengths and weaknesses would balance, and it would score on the GIMLET somewhat close to Adventure's 38 (which would make sense, since I put the original Wizardry at 37). For the second time, I'm surprised to find a far more tactically-oriented game than I would have expected for a handheld device.