Saturday, February 26, 2022

Wizardry: Pyrrhic Victory

Well hello there, long time no see.  As has become customary for this blog, I'm back from a lengthy hiatus.  I've had lots of things going on over the past year, not least of which being the complete breakdown of my marriage.  That's behind me now, but I have other things going on that limit my time for blogging and playing games.  The blog may continue, but I'll tackle that below.  For now, it's time to wrap things up with the long-awaited (by some) conclusion to Wizardry.

My last update saw me in something of a sorry state: my primary party had been ambushed and killed by Werdna, leaving their bodies effectively irretrievable.  I was now forced to revert to my all-evil back-up party, consisting of:

  • Faker, a 13th-level fighter
  • Fraudo, a 13th-level fighter
  • Satanic Stan, a 13th-level priest
  • Pagan Pete, a 13th-level priest
  • Spelric, a 13th-level mage
  • Magical Gary, a 13th-level mage

The first thing I noticed on reviewing my characters was that Satanic Stan had really good stats: he had an 18 in everything except IQ and Agility, and those were both sitting on 16.  By this point I'd looked at the requirements for the various specialty classes, and I knew that becoming a Ninja required scores of 17 across the board.  I was pretty stoked at the prospect of getting a Ninja in my party, so I dropped everyone except Stan and Fraudo and went down to grind against Murphy's Ghosts.  Levelling up was pretty quick with only two party members, and fortune was with me: the first level I gained got me the stats I needed, and I was able to convert Satanic Stan into a Ninja.  Now I had a front-line fighter with the ability to occasionally score an instant kill, as well as the ability to cast the highest-level priest spells.

I was determined not to be done in by Werdna a second time, so I set about trying to create the most powerful party I could muster.  I turned Faker and Fraudo into mages, so that my back-line spellcasters would have plenty of hit points.  I turned Spelric into a priest, and I turned Pagan Pete and Magical Gary into fighters.  After 13 more levels of grinding, I was all set to have four top level mages and three top-level priests, and a more robust party overall in terms of hit points.

Of course, this being Wizardry, the game did its best to throw a wrench into my plans.  At around the point where my characters hit 8th level, something terrible happened to Fraudo: he died of old age!  I checked his age, and he was only 28.  Adventuring can be a stressful occupation, I guess.  A character who dies of old age can't be brought back to life, so I had to replace him with another mage who I called Vonotar.  I was getting tired of grinding, so I didn't bother giving Vonotar a second class; he was a straight mage, and the obvious weak link in my party in terms of hit points.

Heading down to level 10, I absolutely steamrolled my way to Werdna's lair.  With the amount of magic power I had I wasn't at all worried about conserving my spells, and everything I encountered fell easily beneath a barrage of MADALTOs and other high-level offensive magic.  I reached Werdna with a full array of 6th and 7th level spells, a party at full health, and the grim determination to get the bastard for good this time.

Of course, you know what happened next.  That dirty, lowdown motherfucker and his vampire cronies surprised me yet again.

Vonotar and Spelric died almost instantly, and a bunch of my other characters were level-drained repeatedly.  On the second round I unloaded with TILTOWAITs, which were all shrugged off, and a couple more of my characters were killed (I can't remember who, this happened a couple of weeks ago at time of writing; I think Satanic Stan and Faker were my last characters alive).  I was left with just two characters, neither of whom were going to last another round.

As I had last time, I seriously considered having Stan cast LOKTOFEIT, which had a chance of whisking my party back to the safety of the castle.  It also had the chance of not working at all, but getting out of there was really tempting; if this party died, I was going to have to start all over again.  In the end, I decided that having my party die after their escape spell fizzled out was a really weak way to go, so I opted to fight it out.  If they were going to go, I was going to risk it all.

I already knew from my last party that MALIKTO wouldn't work, so I had my priest cast BADI (a death spell) on Werdna.  Whatever happened, I was planning to take him with me.

For my mage, I'd already ruled out TILTOWAIT, and I figured that any other damage-dealing spell would be insufficient.  I decided to take a gamble on the unknown, and cast MAHAMAN.  It's a 7th-level mage spell whose effects are random, and not given in the manual.  Just casting it drains a level from the caster, so I figured it must be good.  The manual says that it should only be used when there's no other hope for survival, and that summed up my situation pretty well.

I never found out if BADI was able to kill Werdna, because my mage cast MAHAMAN first, and it worked even better than I expected: it killed Werdna and his vampires immediately.  With one spell, cast in desperation, I'd beaten Werdna and got my revenge.  On his body I found an Amulet.  Apparently you can use it to get back to the surface, but I got back by casting MALOR instead.

I later looked up the effects of MAHAMAN, and saw that it can do the following: make your spells deal more damage; cure the party of all status ailments; fully heal the party; improve everyone's AC by 20; raise all dead characters; silence all enemies; or teleport all enemies away.  None of those are instant kills, so I guess I got the "teleport away" effect.  I'm just going to assume that I teleported Werdna into solid rock, and that he's not still lurking out there somewhere waiting to get his revenge.

Upon returning to the castle I returned the Amulet to Trebor, and was rewarded with 250,000 experience points.  (This kind of thing always seems weird to me.  If Trebor can just hand out XP, why didn't he use that power to make a party of super-characters to go and kick Werdna's butt?)  I was also initiated into the Overlord's Honor Guard, at the cost of all my equipment and most of my gold.  Of course you get no choice about this; given the option my evil characters would have told Trebor where to stick his Honor Guard, and made off with their gold.  But alas, I must be somewhat depowered for Wizardry II, I assume.

I was able to resurrect all of my dead characters at the temple, so I'm ready for the sequel (about 18 games away on my list).  That said, I don't really feel like I properly finished Wizardry 1.  I know I didn't cheat, but getting lucky with a randomised spell still feels like a cheap victory.  I'll take it, because I really don't want to play this game again right now, but I don't feel all that good about it.

That sentiment kind of encapsulates my feelings on Wizardry, to be honest.  I'm glad to have played it and checked it off my bucket list, but ultimately I found it more frustrating that enjoyable.  There's no denying that it's very well made for the time; indeed, it's so far ahead of its time that games using the same basic design were being made for decades afterwards.  It's specific brand of cruelty, with perma-death and various other nasty surprises (I'm looking at you death from old age), mean that it's not a game that I'm ever going to love.  I've played plenty of other games with perma-death for the blog, but for some reason it irked me in Wizardry more than it has in the past.  Perhaps I just feel like I should be past that sort of thing by now?

Anyway, regardless of my own personal tastes I still expect it do well on the RADNESS Index.


Story & Setting: We're not breaking any new ground here with the plot: an evil wizard has stolen a thing, and you have to kill him and get it back.  As for the setting, it really makes little sense.  I can just about buy that King Trebor has a monster-filled dungeon under his castle that he uses to test adventurers.  But why is the evil wizard Werdna living down there as well?  As an excuse for a dungeon adventure it works well enough, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  The dungeons themselves are also unfortunately lacking in detail, with levels 5 through 9 being almost entirely pointless.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: NPCs are virtually nonexistent, but Wizardry presents a number and variety of monsters that are far and away beyond anything else the blog has seen thus far.  Many of them are drawn from, or at least vaguely based on, monsters from AD&D, and their respective strengths, weaknesses and special abilities are well represented.  Most of the games I've played so far have either had a small number of foes with varied abilities, or a large number that function as little more than bags of hit points.  Wizardry may be the first game which has a similar variety in monster types and their abilities. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Combat: As I mentioned above, Wizardry is mechanically ahead of its time, and much of that comes down to the combat system.  Many RPGs to come will lift it wholesale, and its influence will even cross over to Japan in the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games.  Of course it feels primitive by today's standards, but it's not a bad stab at recreating early D&D combat played without miniatures (or "theatre of the mind" as it's sometimes called).  What really elevates it is the magic system, and its interaction with the strengths and weaknesses of the monsters.  This might be the first CRPG with combat that's actually fun to play, so it's no surprise that it gets copied so much.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

(From here I'm writing in February of 2022, so my memory gets hazier.  Forgive me for any inconsistencies and errors.)

Aesthetics: The look of Wizardry can best be described as utilitarian.  It's so utilitarian that Sir-Tech left it mostly intact for most of the decade, and countless other games lifted its basic layout.  There's some added flash with the various monster illustrations, but those get repetitive after a time, and are quite primitive to begin with.  I wavered with this one, but in the end I'm going to be stingy here. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: For the most part everything in this game works very well, except that routine tasks tend to require two more steps than seem necessary.  The combat is the crowning achievement here, but I've already covered that above.  Aside from that exploration, character creation, the magic system and making transactions in town work well aside from minor niggles.  Everything takes longer than it should, but everything works like it should, and in a game of this vintage that counts for a lot. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This is a tough one to judge.  It's not a long game, and for the most part it's not that difficult as long as you're careful. But the things thrown into the game to make it more difficult are incredibly frustrating: perma-death, death from old age, characters disintegrating during resurrection, teleporting into solid rock...  All of these things are included to more accurately model the D&D experience, but they all add up to make for an incredibly frustrating experience.  On the other hand, figuring out combat and when to deploy your spells and when to retreat from the dungeon is an enjoyable challenge.  So how do I judge a game that's hard in a way that is equal parts fun and frustration?  As I often do in these situations, I'll take the coward's way out. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: The fun factor for Wizardry definitely operates on a curve: difficult and frustrating at the beginning, fun for a while in the middle, then lots of grinding and intense frustration again towards the end.  Thinking back on it, the frustrating parts outweighed the enjoyable ones, so I'm marking this one lower than its historical significance and longevity would suggest. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2.  As one of the most influential games in the CRPG genre and gaming in general, I have to give this one full points here.

The above scores total 25, which doubled gives a score of 50.  Add the two bonus points, and Wizardry scores a healthy RADNESS Index of 52.  That places it equal 3rd overall.  Only Zork and Ultima are higher, and Rogue is sitting on equal points.  It's interesting to see that it scored the same as Rogue, as they're similarly influential games with frustratingly difficult elements.  Nevertheless, despite its problems Wizardry is undoubtedly and unsurprisingly one of the very best games I've played for the blog so far.


Okay, so where do I go from here?   The sad truth is that I don't have time to maintain the blog on a regular basis.  I also don't get a lot of time to play games, and I don't want to devote all of that time to vintage games of often questionable qualitative value.  That said, I'm reluctant to abandon the blog completely; I'm not gonna lie, I like having readers and getting feedback, as small as my audience is.  So my current plan is to keep playing and posting occasionally.  I suspect that I'll be following my Priority List, so rather than a comprehensive journey through CRPGs and adventure games the blog will become a chronological journey through the best of the two genres.  I won't guarantee any sort of schedule, but I'll be back here intermittently.  What I'm saying is, if you're in the habit of checking here every day or every week, maybe scale back to once a month or so. It'll save some time