Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wizardry VI: Final Rating

Wizardry: Bane of the Cosmic Forge
United States
Sir-Tech Software (developer and publisher)
David W. Bradley (writer and programmer)
Released 1990 for DOS and Amiga;1991 for FM Towns, Macintosh, and PC-98; 1995 for SNES
Date Started: 10 October 2013
Date Ended: 26 October 2013
Total Hours: 38
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Reload Count: 29
Final Rating: 53
Ranking at Time of Posting: 106/119 (89%)

Without intending to, I managed to make most of this game's discussion about its frequent depiction of nudity, with various commenters opining that the source of my discontent was my liberal political views, some deep-seated psychological issues, or just general prudery.

Some of your perspectives on the issue strike me as absurd. Some of you seem to think that the impossibly full, round breasts displayed by the Amazulus, Rebecca, the sirens, and the faeries were the product of a dedication to historic or thematic authenticity--as if David Bradley looked up "Zulu" in the encyclopedia and thought, "Well, I was planning to clothe them in chain mail, but it looks like historical Zulu women were bare-breasted. As much as it pains me, I can't possibly depict these fantasy warrior women in a way that would be inconsistent with history. My impressionable young players might grow up with the wrong idea of South African cultures. I mean, 'Zulu' makes up half of their name, and there's no way I could possibly consider changing it." If you think the nudity was included for any reason other than to titillate the mostly-juvenile audience for CRPGs in the 1990s, I think you're deluded.

I'm not the one cavorting around with an unclothed teenager.
But let me be clear: I have no problem with sex or nudity in games, film, or literature. Given the tastes I've expressed over the years, I don't know how anyone could possibly think that I do. I praised the Malazan series. I watch A Game of Thrones. I practically live on Bourbon Street, for Christ's sake. I was a Playboy subscriber for many years and probably would still be if physical magazines were still a sensible thing. But put my favorite issue of Playboy in the hands of some creepy guy sitting next to me on a train, have him wave it repeatedly in my face while saying, "Hey! Look at those bazzoombas! Oooh, yeah. Look at 'em! Look at 'em!," and now we have a problem.

If that's not how the game feels to you, that's fine. There's a lot of room for personal preference when it comes to these things. But every time I saw nudity in Wizardry VI, I saw David W. Bradley grinning behind the images, gurgling out his encouragement to look at those bazoombas. Maybe my reaction would have been entirely different if I hadn't looked at his photo in the hint guide before playing the game.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that this is the first nudity we've seen in a western CRPG, so kudos to Wizardry VI, I guess. Even though I mentioned it several times, I didn't mean to suggest that it hurt my enjoyment of the game. Let's GIMLET the rest of it.

1. Game World. Before this year, first-person dungeon crawlers have been notable for offering only the thinnest, most forgettable framing stories, concentrating on combat mechanics and character development above NPCs and lore. Bane bucks the trend established by the first Wizardry game by offering a story integrated throughout the game without sacrificing any of the other mechanics. The legends of the Cosmic Forge and the mystery of what happened to the castle's denizens make for intriguing gameplay, even if the game's "reveals" (e.g., the king became a vampire and is named DRACULA, the abrupt ending that resolves very little about the Cosmic Forge) don't always live up to the promise.

The various themes and encounters in the world don't always hold up well, and the game isn't big enough to get as high a score as, say, Pool of Radiance or Ultima IV, but it rates higher than any Wizardry title so far. Score: 5.

Looks more like a sword than a pen to me.

2. Character Creation and Development. One of the better ones. The game offers a substantial selection of races and classes, including some original (if derivative) ones and the ability to change classes at will. With selection of spells and assigning of skill points, the game supports extensive choice during the process of leveling up, and leveling comes often enough that you feel substantially rewarded. There's not much opportunity to role-play characters, and I don't think my all-female party had a substantially different game than an all-male party. Score: 6.

My lead character at the end.

3. NPC Interaction. Another leap forward for the Wizardry series. The basic mechanic was already introduced in Wizardry V, except that in that game, the conversations were less important, and all the NPCs were frankly idiotic (as opposed to about 20% of them in this game). There are only a handful with whom you can have serious conversations, but that handful is interesting, and I love that you can play "evil" and just kill them, but still find enough clues to make it through the game. As some commenters pointed out, the NPCs have some of the same complexity of real people: they lie, try to bend the party to their own purposes, and invite you to consider if you really want to put up with their nonsense.

I'm divided on the mechanic for interacting with them. On one hand, I love the idea of typing actual sentences and having what feels like real conversations. On the other, I think the technology isn't quite there to properly parse the sentences. There were annoying variances in responses to extremely similar questions. An NPC might say, "You must seek the wizard!" and you'll get completely different answers depending on whether you say THE WIZARD?, WHO IS THE WIZARD?, and TELL ME ABOUT THE WIZARD. But when it worked, it worked well, and there were several yes/no dialogue options that allowed some role-playing. Score: 7.

4. Encounters and Foes. There were some decent encounter options related to NPCs, and the copious inventory puzzles, some of which offered a satisfying challenge, bolster the score a bit here. For the enemies, I didn't think they were any better or worse than the standard dungeon-crawler. Only a few had special attacks that required an adjustment of tactics. A handful of "boss" battles were more interesting. Plenty of randomness and opportunities for grinding. Score: 5.

5. Magic and Combat Bane improves slightly on the previous installments' combat system with weapon skills, more attack options, the ability to switch inventory during combat, and a more sophisticated approach to multiple attacks. I also like the magic system better, with spell points replacing the "spell slots" system, and the ability to vary the amount of energy channeled into a single spell. The spells themselves are a neat mix of offensive, defensive, and utility spells that make each spellcasting class valuable in its own way. In total, I liked it best of the Wizardrys so far, but to be honest, I'm past the whole "line up your attacks and execute them all at once" system. Score: 7.

Fireballing some ninjas.

6. Equipment. I always like the process of slowly building and improving equipment, and this game does well with armor, shields, helmets, leggings, gauntlets, boots, and the ability to dual-wield weapons, along with the usual scrolls, wands, potions. There are also a fun series of items like "sparklers" and "fire bombs" that allow anyone to replicate certain spells. I thought the process of assessing equipment and shuffling it around was a bit cumbersome, but the "identification" spell at least made the assessment possible. I also liked that except for some special items, equipment was generally randomized throughout the game. Score: 6.

7. Economy. I didn't love it. Mostly, all you can do with money is buy things from a handful of NPCs, and they rarely offered anything that I needed and couldn't find throughout the course of my regular dungeon explorations. I ended the game with tens of thousands in unspent gold. There were a few times I needed gold for plot-related reasons, but I always had more than enough. Score: 4.

8. Quests. The game features an interesting main quest with multiple steps on the way that provide some role-playing choices. The endgame offers a series of options that lead to several potential outcomes, which is rare for the era. No side quests, unfortunately. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are marginally better than the previous games, although as I noted repeatedly, it replaced monotonous wireframe walls with monotonous brick walls. Monster and NPC portraits were okay. The sound is passable, but barely so. As for the interface, I didn't care for it. I don't understand why games that offer keyboard, mouse, and joystick support have to treat keyboard players as if they're using a joystick or mouse: doing anything in the game means hitting ENTER and then arrowing around a group of menu options instead of, say, being able to hit "U" to use something or "S" to search. Switching between character profiles means arrowing to "Review" and selecting the character rather than just hitting F1, F2, and so on. I don't have a lot of patience for that. Score: 3.

10. Gameplay. Bane is a little linear. You have to explore its various areas in a precise order to find the keys and other special items necessary to progress. Although there is some general nonlinearity within each of the major areas, there were times I felt I was on a rail. I give it some points for replayability, as different character choices would face different challenges, and there were some role-playing options and end-game choices that it might be fun to redo.

Despite some pre-game literature that suggested a complete game would last "200+ hours," I completed it in 38, which is just slightly longer than I would have preferred to spend on it. The difficulty was a little uneven, tending towards the easy side for the first 3/4 of the game and suddenly kicking itself up a notch at the end (although my choice to switch classes late in the game may have accounted for that). I'm not sorry that the series abandoned permadeath, but I thought it perhaps went a little too far in making saving and reloading a simple affair. Score: 5.

The final score of 53 is much higher than I gave its predecessors, influenced by the much better approach to the story and NPCs, and the slightly better approach to magic and combat. It's a good game, and if I sometimes seemed less than enthusiastic during my posts, it's because Bradley rubbed me the wrong way in the game materials and continued to rub me the wrong way (at this point that phrase becomes unfortunate) with his frequent invitations to look at those bazoombas.

We'll encounter him every few years for a while, starting with Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant in 1992, CyberMage: Darklight Awakening in 1995,  Wizards and Warriors in 2000, and Dungeon Lords in 2005.

Reviews of the game were universally positive. ACE called it "an absolute gem," Amiga Format "a great game with some pleasant touches," Amiga Action "a great game which breaks the rules and still comes up looking good." Marc Clupper's review in the February 1991 Computer Gaming World praises the character creation process primarily, but also the innovative trap system, the lack of symmetry in dungeon design, the NPC dialogue system, and the sound (which he experienced on a different platform), and concludes that the game is "a triumphant celebration of the Wizardry heritage and provides a legacy almost predestined to repeat the glory of its predecessor." The game was nominated for "Role Playing Game of the Year" in November 1991 but lost to another game prominently featuring breasts: Elvira.

As I said last time, I was a little disappointed in the abrupt ending, but I look forward to seeing how the story continues in Crusaders of the Dark Savant. For now, on to something called The Dragon Sword! [Later edit: I can't seem to find a copy of The Dragon Sword. On to Dungeons of Doom!] [Even later edit: Can't find a copy of that, either. On to Dragonflight!]

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Wizardry VI: Won!

I had been expecting a twist ending to Bane of the Cosmic Forge--something that explained the true nature of the "pen" and perhaps that allowed the player to make some choices about how to use it. I frankly thought it would turn out to be some kind of meta-ending, in which the Cosmic Forge wasn't a literal pen but perhaps the programming interface used to create and edit the world.

With these expectations, I wasn't enamored of the ending, or endings, to the game. Instead of a solution to its mysteries and a true explanation of the Cosmic Forge, we get a cliffhanger and a setup for its sequel. I don't care how many of the enigmas are clarified in the sequel; I have to wait at least two years to play it.

The game also got a lot sillier towards the end.
There wasn't much physical space to the game after my last post, just a forest, a Temple of Ramm consisting of four small levels, and a Chamber of the Cosmic Forge with the final encounters. But regardless of the overall size, it took me a long time to traverse the areas because the difficulty of the combats increased significantly. In contrast to most of the other enemies in the game, whom I could generally conquer with fighting power alone (or perhaps coupled with a few sleepy-time tunes from the bard), these areas featured fearsome foes with mass-damage spellcasting, paralyzing, and stoning capabilities. I had to spend a lot more time plotting combat tactics--primarily spellcasting--than before, and my reload count increased significantly. Adding to the difficulty was a lack of fountains in the final areas.

I'm not sure whether my late-game class changes helped or hindered in the endgame. By the time it was over, each character had achieved a level in her new class equal to the one she'd held when she switched from her old class, and if I hadn't switched classes, I probably would have only achieved one more level. On the other hand, the resistances and extra attacks conveyed by that one extra level might have made the difference in a few combats, particularly the last one.

There wasn't much to the forest. I entered it by escaping the jail, which I did by showing my Dagger of Ramm to the guard. He was so freaked out that I had it that he summoned a bunch of allies, opened the door, and attacked. I checked the hint guide after I won, and I discovered that I could have escaped using the magic mushrooms I got from the giant caterpillar, too.

The primary mission in the forest turned out to be getting the Staff of Ramm from an Oracle, but to do that, I needed to answer some cryptic questions, which I couldn't do until I had conversed with Saeran, Queen of the Faeries. She and all of the other faeries were, of course, nude--bottomless as well as topless this time, though their animations were so fast that you'd have to take screen captures to see the few pubic pixels. That is not a phrase I was ever looking forward to typing in a review.

I guess that's as good an explanation as any.
In addition to the staff, the Oracle  granted me a vision of the final battle against the vampire king, in which I would have to use a "piece of shining glass," the silver cross, wooden stakes, and holy water. I never found the "shining glass" during my gameplay. I later discovered that I needed to chip them off a rock in the forest. I think this made the ending more difficult but, as we'll see, not impossible.

From there, I had trouble entering the Temple of Ramm and fought a dozen battles with gate guards before it occurred to me to try approaching the temple with some artifact of Ramm. The solution turned out to be wearing the goat's head mask I'd discovered ages ago in the castle.

The Temple consisted of three levels that were hard to map because it kept teleporting me among them. It was nonetheless a very linear process, delayed only by a succession of near-boss combats on each level. When I first arrived, I was greeted by the insane wizard Xorphitus and I had to use the Staff of Ramm from the forest to cross a pit of lava. Xorphitus also showed up at the end for a very pathetic confrontation in which I killed him in the first round.

With his dying breath, he asked why I'd killed him, and I said "YOU WERE IN MY WAY," which led me to the first of three endings I experienced; specifically, the "dumb boffo ending."

I'm sorry, but my ladies entered the castle to solve a 120-year-old mystery, not to obtain the Cosmic Forge for themselves. Nonetheless, knowing that this was the proper answer, I reloaded, defeated the wizard again, and answered "correctly" this time. His longer death speech bolstered my assumption that the Forge would turn out to be the tools used to program the game itself:

The world you see is an illusion, only a trick, a reflection of the operation of your own mind...You're searching for the Cosmic Forge, the pen of destiny, and it sounds like powerful magic... But what if it wasn't magic? What if it was...

And then he died before completing the thought.

No, I killed you because you attacked me when I stepped on the only square available.
I strode forward down a flight of stairs and was confronted by the vampire king who, in the dumbest twist ever, the game explicitly names as "Dracula." Or, I'm sorry, "D R A C U L A." The first time I stumbled into him, he summoned Rebecca to aid him. Unprepared, I was unable to even hit him in combat and was swiftly slaughtered.

On a reload, I equipped my stakes and holy water before facing him, cast some buffing spells, and used the silver cross during the first round. Weirdly, he didn't summon Rebecca this time. I was able to kill him in four rounds without significant damage to my party. He had a long death speech that indicated he had grown tired of undead existence and was grateful to my party for slaying him.

At this point, Rebecca appeared and expressed sadness over the death of Dracula. She told a different story than the ghost of the dead queen, claiming that it was the demented, evil queen who had ordered the death of the vicar and his mistress (Rebecca's mother), and who tried to kill Rebecca but slipped and fell on her own knife. The queen had said that the king had taken Rebecca as a lover and fathered a son, but Rebecca indicated that the king was only her "protector and benefactor" and that the son had been his with the queen. She warned me of his temperament and gave me a key to his lair behind the Cosmic Forge before departing.

Wherever you end up, there's a thing called a "shirt" that you might want to check out.

At that point, I was able to stride forward to the Cosmic Forge, where the game asked if I wanted to take it. On the first try, I said "yes," and met an abrupt ending in which a "strange voice" said "I'll take that!" and I got the end screen as above with no further explanation.

All that work deserves more than seven words and a generic end screen.

On a reload, I said "no" and continued through the chamber to the lair of Bela the Dragon. Why the son of the king and queen is a dragon is a little unexplained, but presumably it has something to do with the bane (curse) of the Cosmic Forge. He didn't give me a chance to talk with him and instead howled his agony over the death of his father, attacked me, and slaughtered me in the first round with a "nuclear blast" spell.

This is kind of a dumb name for a spell. A real "nuclear blast" would destroy the dungeon and kill everyone in the radius.

I wanted to defeat Bela to see what the alternate endgame had to offer, but it took me more than 20 reloads and I nearly gave up. Most of his attacks were capable of killing at least one character per round; some of them were capable of killing all of them, and he had more than 800 hit points--the most (I think) in the game. However, he also had a weak "acid spray" attack and the combined might of my fighters was capable of inflicting about 150 hit points of damage per round. Thus, I had to keep reloading until he favored his weaker attacks for a few rounds in a row, allowing me to ultimately defeat him with all but two of my characters slain. I resurrected them and proceeded forward.

Out of nowhere, the game gave me an odd and unwelcome turn towards science fiction. In the chamber beyond Bela's was a  spaceship, which my party perceived as a "slumbering beast" encased in armor. Despite their misgivings, my party entered its "mouth" and soon found itself among stars. At that point, I got the same end game screen as above.

Be careful what you promise, Sir-Tech.

I guess there was a third possibility, achievable if I had distrusted the queen's ghost and discarded the silver cross before my first meeting with the vampire king. In this ending--called the "best" by one of my commenters--the vampire king, after a silly speech, impales and kills himself. Rebecca says goodbye to the party as before, but Bela is not hostile when you approach him. Instead, he offers to take the party on a ride in the spaceship ("we can make fuel from the dinosaur remains up in the forest") to go chasing a "cosmic lord." I read the text of both the vampire's speech and Bela's speech in the hint guide, and I have to say they're both pretty dumb. I rather prefer the ending that I got.

No matter what your ending, the game somewhat nonsensically kicks you back to the Enchanted Forest once you've won and allows you to keep exploring and fighting. I messed around a bit to see if there was anything new to encounter, didn't find anything, and shut it down.

I browsed through the rest of the hint guide, and I was surprised to see that it recommended that characters be at least Level 15 before confronting Bela. That would have taken an absolutely staggering number of experience points, even without my class change. (I achieved a total of about 1.5 million experience points per character throughout the game; Level 15 for most classes requires around 2.5-2.8 million.) I guess some players are willing to do a lot more grinding. Other than that, the hint guide didn't tell me anything I hadn't already discovered through gameplay, except the uses of the "Rock of Reflection" and a couple of longer conversations with NPCs. Oh, and I guess I could have avoided killing the Queen of the Amazulus. I was actually more surprised to see that all of the NPC-related quests had "outs" if you chose to kill them instead, usually by finding some message or artifact on their bodies.

Again, I'm a bit disappointed in the cliffhanger ending, which promises the next game in 1991, but as we now know didn't come out until 1992. It's one thing to have a sequel to a game; it's another to split the plot between games. Yes, I know books and films do it, but I don't find it any more attractive there. Even in series, books, films, and games should try to tell a self-contained plot (if also offering a general series plot), lest the company go out of business or the creators die in between episodes.

I'll GIMLET this soon, and then move deeper into 1990. Perhaps if I'm lucky, I'll be able to play the sequel sometime before the end of 2016.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Wizardry VI: Cry Me a River

The latest set of journeys through Wizardry VI have taken me through a river and Hall of the Dead, both full of various object-based puzzles, culminating in a series of encounters with the main NPCs. The game is fleshing out its plot in interesting ways. At the same time, it is also fleshing out other things. I don't have any particular objection to nudity in a game, but I don't like participating in some developer's juvenile self-gratification, and that's what this game's approach to female NPCs and enemies is beginning to feel like.

The river--based on the River Styx, I guess--was cleverly done. It consisted of a long north-south map that wrapped back on itself, with a series of islands and special encounters in the middle. To start, I had to blow the Horn of Souls, which I'd found in the vicar's room in the castle, to summon Charon the Ferryman. Charon would only ferry me to one other island, but that island had a boat that took me to a third.

So I guess I'm going to the Land of Death.

At one point, I encountered a group of sirens--they were nude, of course--but I'd previously found a book that gave me the proper response to their song. In reward, they gave me a pair of "water wings" that allowed me to travel the river and its environs without relying on Charon.

If I hadn't known the answer to their riddle, I wonder if their charms would have worked on my female characters.

There was a series of puzzles that was challenging enough to leave me satisfied. An NPC named Bugbrains was looking for a hookah that he'd lost somewhere. I'd encountered some kind of weird "storage facility" in the midst of the river--run, quite naturally, by a nude woman--so when I suggested it to him, he immediately recalled that's where he'd left it, but he didn't remember the code to retrieve it. To get the code, I had to use the "Bottle Oracle"--a place in the river where you could drop a question written in a bottle and retrieve the answer downstream.

I mean, if you were running a storage facility in the middle of the River Styx, why would you wear clothes?

Bugbrains gave me the note to put in the bottle, and I finally found use for a wine bottle I'd been carrying since the castle's basement. I merged the note with the bottle and a cork, dropped it in the river, and picked up the code. When I returned and used the code at the storage facility, some weird stuff happened that I didn't fully understand, but I got out of there with the hookah. In return, Bugbrains gave me some magic mushrooms that I'm sure will come in handy later.

While I liked the puzzles, I wasn't enamored of Bugbrains himself, who--as a giant, hookah-smoking caterpillar--unpleasantly recalled some of the excessively goofy NPCs from Wizardry V, like the Duck of Sparks and Thelonious P. Loon, Master of Time and Prophet Extraordinaire.

Ever since I didn't buy the "mystery oil" from Queequeg in the castle basement and had to trek all the way back to him when I needed it, I've been sensitive to purchasing any NPC offerings that sound unique. In Bugbrains's case, that was a stick of incense. It came in handy quite quickly. On the Isle of the Dead, I returned the urn of a warrior to an alcove, burned the incense there, and got access to the Halls of the Dead.

In the midst of the river area, most of my characters started to hit Level 11 in their primary classes, and I decided it was time to dual them. Dualing comes with advantages and disadvantages. The primary disadvantage is that all attributes are reset to the minimums necessary for that class. You lose level-based resistances and multiple attacks. And Wizardry VI isn't like Dungeons & Dragons where when you exceed the original class's level, you get all your abilities back again. A character who duals from a samurai to a ranger never gets to use samurai equipment again.

The primary advantages are that you get to keep any spells that you've already learned, as well as the associated spell points. You also get to keep any skills you've developed. Since dualing starts you over at 0 experience points, you regain levels quite quickly and soon end up with a character as high a level as the original with lots of extra spells and skills.

I had wanted to make someone a "Lord," but no one had the right attributes.

I probably didn't make some great choices in my selection of second classes. I rather liked some of my existing classes--valkyrie, samurai, and ninja in particular. I decided to "keep" them by just swapping them about. Though I appreciated my bard's musical abilities at the beginning of the game, I was finding less and less use for her, so I decided to make her a full mage. My bishop had already achieved some good mage spells, so I decided to make him a pure priest (yes, it would have made more sense to start him as a pure mage and then dual him to a priest). Finally, I was getting annoyed at always having to find extended weapons for my fourth-position character, so I decided to create a ranger to specialize in bows.

These were the changes I decided to make:

  • Nysra: Valkyrie to Ninja
  • Paisley: Ninja to Valkyrie
  • Lashi: Samurai to Ranger
  • Selky: Monk to Samurai
  • Harquin: Bard to Mage
  • Nofri: Bishop to Priest

(I haven't actually dualed Paisley or Nofri yet, as I'm waiting for them to hit Level 11 in their primary classes first.)

One of the primary reasons to switch classes is to get access to new spellbooks, so I didn't do so great in my choices with the last three characters, all of whom stuck with spellbooks that they already had. But neither Nofri nor Harquin had the stats to dual to one of the fighting classes, and I found the psionics and alchemy spellbooks a bit underwhelming.

Unfortunately, I picked a really bad time to have a set of characters with low resistances and single attacks. The Hall of the Dead, which I entered shortly afterwards, featured four extremely difficult combats with high-level opponents: a valkyrie, a fighter, a ranger, and a samurai. After dying a few times, I returned to an area of the river where two fountains stood side-by-side. One restored health and stamina and one restored spell points. I spun in place there for a while, drawing enemies to me, using the fountains after every fight or two, and soon had my dualed characters at Level 5. This made the Hall of the Dead battles easier, but not easy.

One of the tougher battles in the game. Robin is listed as a "Drow elf," which I didn't know existed in this world until now.

All this dualing was, of course, accompanied by a massive reshuffling of equipment. I don't love the game's approach to gear. Almost everything that you can find or buy is aspected to particular races and classes. You can determine who can use an item by "assaying" it in the inventory screen, but you can't really determine what it does--damage, associated magic powers, resistances--without casting "identify" on it. Fortunately, two of my characters have that, but going through a lot of equipment means shuffling items to those who can identify it and back again. The inventory screens themselves are a bit cumbersome, with each character's holdings divided between a main screen and a "swag" bag. You cannot equip items one-by-one; every time you choose "equip," you go through a process of re-equipping everything. All in all, dealing with equipment involves a few too many keystrokes.

Back to the Hall of the Dead. In this area, in addition to the tough combats, I encountered three of the game's key NPCs: the king, the queen, and Rebecca, the demon child. Speeches from each of these characters helped fill in mysteries in the game's back story.

The old king was first, and I found that he'd been transformed into a vampire. When I encountered him, he attacked me and ended up charming most of my characters. None of my characters were able to even hit him, let alone do any damage, but he took off after a few battle rounds anyway, leaving me (for some reason) with the key to the queen's burial chamber.

The old king's reaction when I told him what I was looking for. I still don't see what's so funny.

Most of the exposition came from the queen's ghost, who was desperate for revenge. She chronicled her husband's rise to power, his greed, and his lust for power. It turns out that he kidnapped Annie, the vicar's mistress, and forced her to sleep with a demon from hell, begetting the demon child Rebecca. (The vicar apparently died believing the girl was his.) When the child came of age, the king discarded his wife in favor of her. When the king asked his new lover what she desired, she asked for the execution of her mother and her vicar lover.

Ultimately, the queen was also killed by Rebecca, who became pregnant with the king's child. About this time, the king got hold of the Cosmic Forge, but the "bane" of the pen resulted in his vampire transformation. The queen gave me a key to Rebecca's chambers and a silver cross and begged me to "not listen to their lies" and destroy them.

Rebecca confronted me the moment I entered the chambers. She was a proper half-demon, with a tail and wings, and it will come as no surprise that she was nude except for some leather boots and a belt. She asked if I was there to kill her, and I said "no," for some reason. (I guess I wanted to hear both sides of the story.) She asked if I'd accompany her to the king, and I said yes. Despite my cooperation, she gazed at me and hypnotized my party anyway. She led me to the vampire king, who feasted on each of my character's necks before recoiling at the last character, my priest, who was wearing the cross.

Right. "Gaze."

Everyone fell unconscious. I woke up in a jail cell after a brief vision of the other half of the wizard Xorphitus. Now I have to figure out how to get out of here. 

So I guess we're not going to be friends.

I promised I'd talk about spells briefly, the one major aspect that was entirely revamped from the previous games in the Wizardry series. Briefly, there are four spellbooks: mage, priest, alchemist, and psionics. In addition to the four "pure" classes, each spellbook is also available from at least one other class.

Choosing a new spell upon leveling up. Note that Paisley has some small ability in all realms.

In addition to the four spellbooks, each spell is classified by one of five "realms": fire, water, air, earth, mental, and magic. (I feel like they could have come up with a better term for that last one, since they're all magic.) Each character has a number of spell points associated with each "realm." The maximums for each realm increase as you level up, but they don't start increasing until you take a spell in that realm, so I've found that it makes sense to try to spread out your spell selections among multiple realms as early as possible. 

When you cast each spell, you get to determine how much power to put into it. For instance, "Fireball" has a base cost of 6 points, but you can choose to use 12, 18, 24, 30, or 36 points instead, with of course more points causing more damage. For buffing spells, more power means greater duration. For some spells, it's unclear if additional power has any consequences--"Identify" is a good example.

Choosing to cast a more powerful version of "Fireball."

Casting success and power also has something to do with the number of skill points you've put into "oratory" as well as the skill associated with each spellbook (e.g., "thaumaturgy" for mages). Actually, I'm not sure if the spellbook skills have anything to do with power; they may just define what spells you're able to learn.

As in almost any RPG, you find yourself using some spells far more than others. In my cases, I've been under-using buffing and defensive spells, mostly because I don't see a palpable difference when I do. I tend to over-use mass-damage spells like "Fireball" and "Magic Missile" (which, in this game, affects every monster in a group). "Heal," of course, is vital quite often, and fortunately four of my six characters have it. There are certain utility spells, like "Direction," "Knock-Knock," and "Detect Secret," which take the place of skills that do similar things.

I'm going to try to experiment more with spells during the rest of the game, particularly defensive spells. As to how much is left to the game, I'm not sure. I don't have any unmapped squares or untaken pathways right now, so unless my escape from this prison cell leads me to a brand new area, I'll have to start re-exploring to find what I missed.

Four more notes:

  • When you encounter "boss" creatures, there's a lot of randomness in how many supporting allies he has. Sometimes, when I lost a battle against one boss and seven of his friends, I'd reload, return, and find him there by himself. This makes a huge difference in the likelihood of success. 

Which of these three groups would you rather face?

  • Despite jacking up my "skullduggery" skill as high as possible, I'm having a miserable time with traps. My bard only figures out a few letters per trap, often not enough to identify it form among the possibilities. Now that I've dualed her to a mage, it's probably even less likely that she'll be useful.
  • I just realized that in addition to changing my characters' classes, I probably also need to change their portraits.
  • Something I forgot to mention about combat the other day: fighters can target a group of enemies but not a specific enemy. This is a little annoying when, say, you've put a group to sleep. Since striking a slept enemy awakens him, it would be better if you could concentrate your attacks on a single foe until he's dead, leaving the others asleep. I don't know how the game decides which enemy you're attacking, but it seems to spread the attacks out. Perhaps it always targets the enemy in the stack that still has the highest number of hit points.

Aside from the significantly reduced difficulty and the unnecessary exploitation, I think I like this game better than the previous Wizardry titles. I'm having a lot of fun with the NPC conversations and the slowly developing story. I look forward to seeing how it ends.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wizardry VI: Temple of Doom

The game produced some...interesting...enemies.
When I first started playing Wizardry VI, it felt like a very different game than its predecessors, and I cynically thought that it only kept the title to cash in on the franchise's established name. But now that I'm some distance into the game, I can see how well it evolves, rather than revolutionizes, the earlier game's approaches.

Consider, for instance, how Wizardry I and V offered a town at the top of the dungeon, where you could occasionally rest, buy equipment, and recharge your spell points. At the beginning of VI, it seemed that it offered no comparable "home." However, the more I play, the more I realize the castle serves that purposes. All roads eventually lead back to it, and it has a couple of NPCs who sell and buy equipment and a selection of healing fountains.

The early Wizardry games (aside from IV, which I'll leave out of the discussion for obvious purposes) offered dungeons of 10 or so levels, each subsequent level deeper into the earth. But instead of always insisting that your progress through the dungeon took you farther and farther from safety, the games offered elevators, portals, secret stairs, and other shortcuts to return quickly from lower levels. Similarly, VI keeps offering shortcuts to return back to the main castle. The result is that after a series of expeditions that took me farther and farther from my origin point, I found that I'd ultimately come full circle, and that the next pathway open to me was back where I'd started.

We see the similarities in a lot of small ways: the first-person exploration, the six-character party, the variety of equipment. Its graphics are marginally better, but it essentially replaces monotonous wireframe dungeon walls with monotonous brick dungeon walls. Even some of this game's novelties, like the new races and classes, are just extensions of the themes established in earlier games.

This game's debt to its predecessors is also clear in combat. In broad strokes, it hasn't changed much at all. Enemies can attack in multiple groups of multiple enemies each. Each character chooses whether to fight, parry, use an item, cast a spell, equip a different item, or flee. After each character has made a selection, you execute the combat round and watch the results.

Analogous screens from Wizardry VI and the original Wizardry.

Small things nonetheless make the quality of combat a bit different from the earlier games:

  • The spell system is entirely re-vamped (a subject I'll cover at length in the next posts).
  • The skill system imparts some additional tactics associated with developing weapon skills and choosing the best weapon for a particular combat.
  • The ability to dual-wield weapons introduces another tactical consideration.
  • There are different classes of weapons, some of which work at short range and some of which work at longer ranges. With the right party order and selection of weapons, every member can theoretically attack in a single round.
  • The multiple-attacks-per-round system is different. In earlier games, as the character developed and you got multiple attacks per round, you executed them all at once. In this one, second and subsequent attacks execute later in the combat round from the primary attack.
  • There are far more items of different types to use in combat.

Perhaps the most important difference, however, is the way that the game's approach to saving and death completely changes the tactical nature of dungeon exploration. Any long-time reader has heard me cover this issue ad nauseum in posts on Wizardry, Might & Magic, and similar games, but I'm nonetheless going to cover it again here, because the way a game approaches combat in many ways defines its challenges and, consequently, how fun it is to play.

Though they're all first-person, multi-character dungeon crawlers with turn-based combat systems, Wizardry I, Wizardry VI, and Might & Magic are all distinguished by slightly different approaches to combat based on three factors:

  1. The method by which characters can restore hit points and spell points
  2. The circumstances under which the player can save.
  3. The consequences of death

(There are of course many other facets of combat that distinguish these games from, say, Pool of Radiance or Dungeon Master, but we'll have to leave such a complex discussion for another time.)

The first Wizardry had the harshest approach to all of these considerations. You could only restore spell points (and, thus, hit points) by returning to the surface. This was also the only way you could really "save," but saving was a bit meaningless in the game since death was permanent. This meant that the player had to think in terms of the expedition rather than just individual fights. You had to carefully decide how long to extend yourself in the dungeon before returning to the safety of the castle to heal, restore spells, train, and rest. It wasn't enough to just win a single battle and throw all your resources into it; you had to be worried about the battle that came next. A party on Level 7 that was victorious but exhausted and wounded was a party that would soon be dead. And then you'd have to restart with new characters at Level 1. Dungeon exploration was mildly terrifying.

Might & Magic's approach was less harsh. Although you could only save by returning to an inn--imparting some of the same considerations as to how far to extend yourself--death was not permanent. Moreover, you could restore hit points and spell points by simply sleeping wherever you wanted, usually with no risk of attack. To compensate for the relative ease that this approach offered, the game made individual encounters and combats much more deadly. You might have thought you were doing well after winning six battles with orcs and elves, but suddenly you'd hit a square with seven dragons and lose 45 minutes of progress. The player learned to ask "how much do I want to risk the next step?" But if he could survive a single combat, he could restore all his hit points and spell points immediately and get himself to relative safety. The game thus became about the difficulty of individual encounters rather than the accumulation of encounters, and the worst you faced was the loss of some adventuring time rather than the entire character.

Now we come to Wizardry VI. You can save literally anywhere and without much effort. Death of an individual character means the use of a "resurrect" scroll or an Amulet of Life, neither of which is scarce, with no penalty. Death of the entire party means a reload from the last save, likely only minutes before. Restoring hit points and spell points is a matter of sleeping. Although it doesn't restore both instantly as in Might & Magic, there's no penalty to sleeping multiple times, and generally speaking if you can survive a battle, you can heal yourself to full strength afterwards. Thus, like Might & Magic, the game's combat challenges are about individual combats and not the accumulation of combats, but unlike Might & Magic, there's no penalty for losing even individual combats. Every new combat against a boss-level creature or unfamiliar enemy can be regarded as essentially a practice round.

The end result is to make Wizardry VI's combat, for all its additional tactical considerations, a bit boring. When encountering a party of 6 undead pharaohs, I can meticulously plan my tactics, carefully selecting the right combination of attacks and spells, or I can just hold down the ENTER key and breeze through default attacks. The difference might mean that I end the combat with 33% of my hit points instead of 50%, but since restoring them is just a matter of casting and resting, that's no difference at all. I would never have dreamed of holding down the ENTER key in the first Wizardry.

When I last blogged, I was stuck on a couple puzzles in the mountain area, but they didn't last long. I freed the wizard Xorphitus from his diamond prison with a few strikes of the miner's chisel from the right locations. Upon achieving his freedom, he went into a long speech before expiring from old age.

The gist of his speech was that the titular "bane" of the Cosmic Forge (a magic pen) is a curse placed upon anyone who uses it while not standing within the "blessed altar" from which Xorphitus and the king stole it. Xorphitus used the pen to write of himself, the wizard who would "know all things in the universe," including how to defeat the bane. The universe responded by granting what Xorphitus wrote, but then rent him into two beings, each with partial knowledge. As this Xorphitus's spirit departed the world, he told me of his insane other half who would know the "where and when" of the pen, and he bade me seek him out.

Nearby, Xorphitus's apprentice, Mystaphaphas, lurked in a caged room. He had accidentally turned himself into a giant snake by using the Cosmic Forge to turn himself into someone who would be "dashing" and "attractive" to the queen. Little did he know that the queen had a fetish for snakes. He also had written that he'd be "safe" from the queen's wrath, a prophecy that worked itself out when the wizard locked his new "pet" in the room for 120 years. I fiddled around with various things to see if I could dispel his form, but I couldn't figure it out.

Based on clues form Mystaphaphas, I was able to use the Wizard's Ring--I found it somewhere in the caves--to open yet another door back in the castle, into an area full of treasure, which ultimately re-connected to the caves. Lots of short cuts like this open up as you play the game. I had to fight a "Demonic Hellcat" to get through, and it provided one of the more interesting animations in the game as well as one of the more challenging combats. He was capable of spitting fireballs and "blinking" in and out of attack range.

The wizard's lair in the castle also held his journal and a "spire key." Reading the journal filled in more of the back story associated with the castle's denizens. Apparently, the castle's vicar fell in love with the king's mistress, Annie, engaged in an affair with her, and fathered a child named Rebecca. I'd previously found a message that the king and queen had purchased the child for 100 gold pieces. Anyway, things apparently didn't end well for the lovers because the wizard's journal discusses his experiments on their bodies. He was able to reanimate Annie's corpse, and he locked it in one of the spire rooms. I had killed it ages ago, so it was interesting to know more of the story. With the vicar, he was able to capture his spirit and imprison it in another spire room, which the spire key opened.

When I opened the door, the vicar's demented spirit launched into a long speech to Annie, expressing remorse for breaking his vows and engaging in the affair. He indicated that he thought that the daughter was evil because she was "conceived from sin." At the end, he blew a horn around his neck and entered "the light," leaving a "Horn of Souls" behind.

This was a little sad.

The next major adventure took me to the pyramid of the Amazulus, the vaguely-African women whose portrait leads this post. The pyramid consisted of three upper levels and two dungeon levels and a whole mess of buttons and pits to navigate. The amazulus themselves came in several classes and they were pretty tough, using poisoned spears and arrows and casting fireballs and other high-level spells.  

The women were the same "black women" I'd seen earlier from a distance. I don't know quite what to say about them. The nudity was a little unexpected (or would have been, if commenters hadn't spoiled it), but the graphics aren't good enough for anyone--not even the most Internet-deprived teenager of 1990--to find them seriously titillating.

Judge for yourself.

There were some discussions of racism in another post, but I can't really find them offensive. As a fusion of Amazons and Zulus, they don't really embody any particular world culture, and it would be absurd to argue that any depiction of non-Caucasians in a game is inherently racist. But I admit if the graphics were better, it would be vaguely uncomfortable, for role-playing reasons, to slaughter a bunch of nude women.

An encounter in the lower level of the pyramid drew from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the second-best of the trilogy, with a stone idol on an altar. Knowing my pop culture, I realized that I needed something to replace it with when I snatched it. I'd found an empty sack somewhere in the pyramid, and I remembered an area of corridor that ended in a pile of sand. Returning there, I filled the sack with sand, went back to the idol, and was able to deftly exchange it for the sack.

This worked out better for me than Indiana Jones.

The idol opened the way to the top of the pyramid, where I encountered the Amazulu queen and her high priestess. The first time, they immediately asked me if I was there to take the rock, just like the guardian at the top of the mountain. I said "yes," the queen demanded that I be sacrificed, and I entered combat with her, the high priestess (named Kuwali Kobona), and a bunch of other Amazulus.

I won the combat, but the queen's poisoned spear left half of my characters dead. Poison is odd in this game. It seems to have different levels of potency depending on what delivers it. That potency affects both the number of hit points you lose per round and how long it takes to wear off. In this case, I couldn't get it to wear off no matter how long I waited, and I didn't have any "cure poison" spells.

So I reloaded and tried the encounter again, this time saying "no" in response to the queen. The next question she asked is whether I'd brought her an offering, and I said "no" again--and was again attacked! But this time it was just the queen. I defeated her without taking more poison damage and took her spear for myself.

A moment when the priestess's shield does its own censoring.

Her high priestess, meanwhile, showed up as an NPC after the queen was dead. That was awfully understanding of her. She had a few things to trade and treated me with a little conversation.

ME: Who are you?
KUWALI KUBONA: I am Kuwali Kubona, high priestess of Mau-mu-mu!
M: Sorry about the queen.
K: That's very interesting...
M: Tell me of Mau-mu-mu.
K: Mau-mu-mu lives in the pool of fire!
M: Fire? Yikes.
K: But first you must prove yourself!
M: Prove ourselves how?
K: By entering the pool of fire!
M: Put some clothes on.
K: I don't know about that...

Behind her was a long platform extending out over an abyss. It was full of fire, but some "foot powder" sold by Kuwali Kubona protected me. I reached the end and killed Mau-mu-mu on the other side, ultimately getting away with a ruby gem.

This is the same game series that produced the god "La-La-Moo-Moo" in the last edition.

At this point, I had two gems and I returned to the skull door in the basement of the castle. The gems opened it and led me to a new area with a horribly-animated river.

What do you bet the Horn of Souls comes in handy soon?

A few more notes:

  • I found a chest at the top of the mountain. When I opened it, I found a note from Queequeg indicating that he'd already been there (following my instructions) and cleaned it out.
  • My characters are now Levels 9 and 10 and I'm starting to think about changing their classes.

Still struggling to find adequate time this month, but I hope my postings pick up after this coming weekend.