Wizardry 8 is a game that succeeds in spite of itself. I’ve been nibbling at this little clunker of a game for over a year now (which seems like a common occurrence — people keep coming back to it) and recently have become engrossed in it once again. It has many, many flaws, yet behind those flaws is an entertaining CRPG that is fun to toy with. Interestingly, it has one of the most dedicated fan communities of recent CRPGs, with pages upon pages of material devoted to how to get the most out of playing and replaying the game.
Wizardry has always had a special place in my heart. It was one of the first full-fledged Computer Role Playing Games that had all of the elements we’re familiar with today — graphics (albeit rudimentary ones), a group of characters with different skills and talents who could be swapped around, interesting magic spells, a confusing dungeon that had to be mapped by hand, powerful (and sometimes cursed) treasure, and a variety of interesting monsters to kill or be killed by. There were games that met some of these requirements before the 1980 release of “Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord” (which came in a really cool box with a shiny green dragon on it), but Wizardry really knitted them together.
Many hours of my youth were misspent huddled around the monitor of Jeff Hollander’s Apple ][+, with Jeff, his brother Steve, and I slogging our way through the dungeon, painstakingly making a map on graph paper (games in these days had no automaps. Sort of like automobiles before the invention of the wheel.) In Wizardry I, only the three party members in your front ranks could attack monsters directly; the three in the back could only cast magic spells or just “parry.” You instructed a character to fight by hitting “F”, and to parry by hitting “P”. This meant that most easier battles had rounds in them where you just typed F-F-F-P-P-P, usually mumbling under your breath “fight fight fight parry parry parry”. The magic spells used a constructed language that was simple and memorable: to this day, I am wasting valuable brain cells storing the fact that katino is the sleep spell, halito is a small fireball, and that I can make a bigger version of some spells by adding the prefix ma-, or la- (leading to mahalito, and lahalito). And who could forget the “nuclear blast” spell tiltowait? ba- negated the meaning of a spell, so while dios healed some of a player’s hit points, badios injured a monster.
I am a sad, sad, man. I know.
Wizardry was modeled closely on Dungeons and Dragons. One of the things about the series that is accidentally interesting is that they simultaneously wanted to emulate D&D as closely as possible, but were clearly aware of the risk of getting sued. So in certain key places they changed the names of various attributes, classes, and the like, and then later ended up building on the ideas suggested by their changed names. For example, the first edition D&D Ranger class became the Samurai in Wiz 8. This led to the inclusion of asian-themed equipment. The assassin became the Ninja; Paladins became Lords.
Likewise, the world the party moved through was full of whimsical anachronisms — for example, in the middle of the dungeon, you might find an electric-powered elevator. While these elements were clearly just spur of the moment, when the game was successful they were kept by Sir-Tech as elements in the future releases in the series. They are part of what gives the Wizardry world its unique flavor.
Wizardry 8 begins with your party’s spaceship crash-landing into the world of Dominus, where you are searching for MacGuffins of incalculable power before the bad guy finds them. The plot, as is par for the Wizardry course, is pretty weak. The developers tried to create a detailed world with shifting alliances and political intrigue. They failed. In large part this failure is because of the horrible interface you use to talk to NPCs, which is similar to Morrowind’s terrible “choose from this list of six hundred nouns until you find something this NPC cares about” UI. I won’t focus on the plot for the rest of this review, except to note that because the plot tells a story, most of the significant battles and powerful items are statically placed. Yes, there are random encounters and some random treasure, but the most interesting set-piece battles (and the most rewarding weapons and magic items) are always in the same place. I think that’s something of a letdown, but I understand the reasoning behind it.
One of the most interesting parts of the game, as in many RPGs, is in character development. Wizardry 8 is above average in this respect, and I think that’s one thing that has kept the game warm in the hearts of gamers. Because there is so much variety in the ways you can develop your characters, the game rewards playing again and again to see how different strategies work out.
Roughly, there are two “types” of characters, and there are a large variety of classes that fall within those types. “Pure” characters do one thing, and they do it very well. For example, Fighters and Rogues are each pure. Likewise, a magic user that can cast from only one of the four realms — Mages, Alchemists, Psionicists, or Priests — are considered pure. Pure characters advance character levels quickly, and become more powerful in their specialization quickly. “Hybrid” characters have a class which has more than one ability. For example, a Samurai is an OK fighter, but can also start casting Mage spells at fifth level. Rangers gain the ability to cast Alchemist spells. Other hybrid classes include the Valkyrie, the Ninja, the Monk, and the Bishop — a magic user who can cast from all four realms. Lastly, there are the Bard and Gadgeteer, who are basically thief/magic users who rely on musical instruments and mechanical gadgets respectively. They don’t quite fall into either category.
Each character class has at least one aspect that is unique to that class. For example, Fighters can go berserk, whereas the fighting hybrids cannot. Samurais can make critical hits to achieve instant kills with melee weapons; Ninjas can make critical hits to achieve instant kills with thrown weapons, and so on.
One aspect of character development that can be tricky the first time you play through is that the game rewards skill specialization and punishes the lack of specialization. Every attribute (Strength, Intelligence, etc.) and skill (Swordsmanship, Stealth, and the like) has a value from 0 to 100. The curve for bonuses in these skills feels logarithmic, so for a good portion of the game you will completely suck at some task and then suddenly you hit ’90′ in the associated task and you start kicking ass and taking names. Furthermore, there are “elite skills” that are only unlocked once the attribute associated with that skill reaches 100. The implication of all this is that a character who has all around good attributes will do horribly compared to a character who has focused on one attribute (or skill) to the exclusion of all others. This takes some of the bloom off the rose of the myriad options discussed above, but once you’ve internalized it it’s simply another choice to be made. The upshot is: pick what you’re going to specialize in early, and stick with it no matter what.
Combat in Wizardry 8 is enjoyable and frustrating at the same time. Wizardry 8 combat is almost tactical. You can create different party formations, which affect which characters can reach which enemies, and vice-versa. Characters have initiative. Between turns, you give each character in the party your orders, and then hit the ‘go’ button, and each character (and enemy) executes their orders in initiative order. This should be tactical combat, yet it isn’t. Why not?
For one thing, your party cannot split up; it moves as a group. Right off the bat, this has a tactical implication: your party can be flanked by enemies, but you cannot flank your enemies. Yes, there are rare situations when you are fighting alongside an allied group of, say, town guards, but they are truly rare circumstances. To the 99th percentile, it’s accurate to simplify this as “you cannot flank your enemies.” Tactics, therefore, is reduced to “make sure you’re walking near a wall so you can wedge yourself into a corner to protect your own flank.” Furthermore, although the individual characters in you party have wildly varying initiative, enemies within a given group do not. So if you’re fighting, for example, one group of five highwaymen and one group of five swarming wasps at the same time, all of the highwaymen will move one after another, and all of the wasps will move one after another — the groups might have differing initiative with respect to each other, but not with respect to their other group members. This element of the combat is flawed.
Movement within combat is also flawed. Choosing to do party movement — which is the only type of movement there is — uses the initiative of your slowest character. While that makes sense mathematically, it also means that the party move button also means “I want to swing last.” The engine does not support the idea of taking a swing, then moving, then taking another swing, no matter how fast your characters are. There is also no concept of delaying one’s move conditionally until an enemy is in range. If you need to do this (and you will), what you end up doing is hitting the ‘party move’ button, letting the enemy approach, and then cancelling movement and taking your swing. While this is serviceable, it’s also incredibly lame, because it means that you can’t issue a ‘delay’ order on a per-character basis. What I’d really like to be able to do in most situations (for example), is have my bowmen go ahead and shoot right away, let my magic-using characters cast their spells, and have the fighters attack with their melee weapons if the enemies close in. Instead, my choices are to delay the entire party by moving (probably taking damage when the monsters close and get the first swing), or not delay and let my magic-users do their thing, and if my fighters initiative comes up first, before the enemies close, they will forfeit their attack. It’s worth noting that since enemies don’t move as a group, they effectively have this privilege. It’s only the player that is punished.
If it seems like I’m complaining, well, I am, but only because I enjoy the combat engine so much that I’ve been willing to play it enough to discover these irritations. Despite all of my complaints, the important point is that even with all these problems, the damn game is fun.
Magic is the most highly polished element of the combat system. It takes a while to realize the depth of the magic system. Every spell belongs to one of six domains — fire, air, water, earth, divine, or mental. Every spell has an intrinsic level at which it can be learned, and furthermore can be cast at a specific power level. So a given spell might last for 2 turns per power level, or inflict 1-6 hit points of damage per level. Characters (and enemies) have different resistances to the different spell realms, so a fire spell might do more damage to a water-based enemy while a water spell would be completely ineffective. Powerful casters have the ability to overcome resistances somewhat. Casting a spell at a higher power level will carry an increased risk of the spell failing or backfiring.
It takes a while to figure out how to use magic effectively. While the direct damage spells (fireballs, etc) do exist, they are for the most part ineffective. Effective use of magic in Wizardry 8 is all about improving your party’s resistance to the attempts of your enemy to disable you, and disabling the enemy. There are a huge number of status effects in the game. You or your enemies can be slept, blinded, irritated, nauseated, paralyzed, knocked out, made insane, silenced, hexed, blessed, hasted, slowed, energized, and probably made into a ham sandwich. Effective magic use is all about doing the bad things unto the other guy and not letting him do them unto you. This part of the game, once you “get it,” might be the most addictive aspect of the combat.
The game has some bugs that can be irritating but not show stopping. The automap can sometimes take upwards of 30 seconds to be displayed. Also, enemy movement is frustratingly slow. Fans claim that the wizfast utility fixes this problem, but they’re wrong — it just makes you sit there and wait for the enemies to move without their animation, instead of waiting for them with their animation.
The game has an active fan base who are happy to talk, in soul-numbing detail, about various strategies for building a succesful party, and about what secret items are where, and just about how great the game is generally.
Wizardry 8 can be found at most major game outlets today for just $20. It’s a bargain at that price, if you like the genre, and I do recommend it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go have my Ranger practice casting Alchemy spells so she can learn Set Portal.