In the history of CRPGs, the Wizardry series should give every old school gamer a chill of ecstasy. The series began already in the early 80s and ended only in 2001 with, but under licence, it has multiple further spin-offs. like , primarily in Japan until the year 2012. An icon of game design called D. W. Bradley created the huge worlds of (1988), (1990) and finally Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992) for the company Sir-Tech before jumping ship and founding his own software company. D. W. Bradley even surpassed himself and created the (in my view) only legitimate successor to Wizardry 7, namely , already one year before Wizardry 8.
The three last Wizardry titles' plot was intended as a trilogy. In the Wizardry universe, the Cosmic Lords – godlike beings – are pulling the strings of fate. This should be taken literally, because they write with the Cosmic Forge – a magical feather which makes every written word come true in the real world. This artifact of the gods is stolen by King Bane and his powerful mage Xorphitus, before it is retrieved by the heroic party of the player at the end of Wizardry VI. The stolen feather reveals the secret of the planet planet Guardia, previously hidden by divine omnipotence. Thousands of years ago, a genious thinker called Phoonzang had solved the secrets of life a left his insights there – hidden in an ultimate artifact. Now the hunt for this Astral Dominae, which allows nothing less than the creation or destruction of the whole universe, begins. Also running is the bad guy Dark Savant, whose space ship we inconveniently meet approaching the plant Guardia.
The dimension of entanglement and the mixture of science fiction elements with classic role-playing ambience started out slowly with entering a space ship at the ending of Wizardry VI and is now continued in Wizardry VII. Guardia is inhabited by the Helazoid people, mysterious giggling female beings from the future riding flying hover sleds. The Dark Savant surrounds himself with mammoth battle robots, the so-called Battle Droids, for his own protection. All this now meets the medieval role-playing sould of our party members. It is hardly surprising that they perceive the space ship in the sky as a “flying whale”. Anyway, the player's fantasy is called upon in many ways, but more about that later.
Depending on the ending reached in the predecessor, you start after importing your old party in a forest by the night's moonlight, discerning a foreboding hum in front of the gates of an allied city. This could be Ukpyr – the home of the Umpani, a rhino-like militant race –, Dionysceus – here, the tribe of the Dane live, who are mystical, tall, blue-skinned druids who, in contrast to the monk-ish Munks, ascribe to worldly things like wine, money and sex – or in case you created a new party New City. Movement works step-wise, as common in the early 90s, the surrounding forest texture will not change anymore for the rest of the game, and likewise the limited sound consists only of the three always repeating musical themes and always the same sound effects.
So did we already see everything after five minutes of intro and one minute of running around?
This is where we should quote the master himself from one of his rare interviews: “Nevermind that the brick forest still appeared as dungeon walls – this was a time when magical realms still lived in imagination and not the video display.” So there is more to the game experience than the cover. In this game, we also meet the same sprites – no matter whether it is the almost invincible Beast Of 1000 Eyes from the Chamber Of Gorrors or just a Jelly Stinger which even a level 3 party can defeat easily – the monster always looks exactly the same. According to D. W. Bradley, the secret is to draw the player into a phantastic world with limited technical means. And we are not alone in this world. There are even rival parties also looking for the much sought-after map pieces with clues pointing to the Astral Dominae and they can beat us to opening treasure chests. The tribes of Guardia send their NPCs (Non Player Characters) with which you can negotiate and build alliances. The Umpani “Rodan Lewarx” seeks out the life of T'Rang “Shritis”, because he has killed his father. Now the player can decide whether to act morally and help him or side with the disgusting T'Rang. Decisions like this influence the stance of fellow tribe members, of course, and trading with an enemy Umpani will require a lot of diplomatic skill, strong charm spells and a high amount of bribes. Unfortunately, even as an ally, you will be attacked by regular members of a tribe.
You're a fan of old-school RPGs? Then show me how much you can take!
Monster attacks are always surprising, because you never see the enemy coming from a distance. Each round, there is a certain likelihood of being attacked. The screen changes to combat mode. Now, you take your time to set actions like spell, hide, kick, punch, bash or even run for each of the six party members each round, and then let the actual battle run automatically.
The computer calculates the hit points based on different parameters and statistics. Luck with the dice is a big part of it. For example, you can score a critical hit right in the first round, which will kill the monster instantly. If not, the right mix of the offered actions will help.
Especially when it comes to magic spells, success is a matter of selecting the right means. The classes mage, priest, alchemist, bishop and psionic all have their own spellbook with a selection of about 40 spells from 96 in the game as a whole. These are further divided in six realms: fire, earth, water, mental, air and devine. Mana is collected per realm. That way, one specific realm can be extended particularly. A psionic could be compeletely specialised on the mental realm, because most of his spells are of the mental kind. For example, he can use mindread to learn an NPC's thoughts, which could turn into an advantage is negotiations. You see, NPCs only react to few specific keywords, which you will only learn from a detailed walkthrough or (legally) through extremely special and hard to come by magic spells.
Resting after a battle will recharge the mana lost by excessive spellcasting. Though unfortunately, this means the player has to wait literally for minutes real time in front of the screen until the bar has been fully charged again. If you are surprised by enemies during that time, the first three warriors will probably sleep through the ambush. Then, it is up to the ranged weapon users which can cover the enemy from the back rows with projectiles and magic spells. If one of our heroes is nevertheless struck down, there is still the obligatory resurrection spell.
For character generation, you have the choice of 11 races. From Tolkienesque creatures like hobbits, pointy-eared elves and axe-wielding dwarves or hairy mooks up to real, fire-breathing dragons, you have the choice of pretty much every fantasy being. After selecting the race and the gender, next up is throwing dice for extra points, because certain classes require certain points in the base stats. Only after fulfilling the necessary minimum, a character can be chosen to become sought-after classes like samurai or ninja.
Attempting to get a demanding combination like faerie-ninja is almost as hopeless as wishing for a win in the lottery. It is much more realistic to stick with a faerie-fighter. Classes can be changed in the course of the game, so that he can become a ninja later. Classes are also bound to skills. The thief can steal things or open locks, while the ranger can use his scout skill to spot hidden buttons on walls.
Following the world-wide prevalence of the Windows operating system, Sir Tech decided in 1996 to follow up the DOS version with, a window-supporting variant. This also put an end to the complicated manual call to the mapping kit from the inventory, because a window with the map is now permanently open. Though this is not all. The character portraits have been redone in the then popular Anime/comic book style. Also, they tried to soften the reputation of being the hardest role-playing game of its time and integrated a hint book with subtle hints at some puzzles' solutions. To jump on the bandwagon of multimedia, all texts can now be listened to as well. Somehow, they had to justify a game which formerly came on two floppy disks now taking up a whole CD. Overall, this re-release was mostly criticised, however, because there were no changes to the game itself. Nevertheless, the screenshots come from this gold version, because the original just didn't want to swallow my save games.
Already one year after the English original, a German translation was released in 1993. The translation quality is really essential in such a game, because the heavy, melancholic atmosphere is primarily carried by the borderline philosophical texts. Wizardry VII is undoubtedly a classic, but it is not at all accessible. The English texts leave a lot of room for interpretation for non-native speakers. The German translation made a major contribution to my understanding of the game. Although I'm not convinced that it ever reaches the depth and elegance of the original language. Maybe it is just the fear of changing something in a masterpiece, which could disturb the overall harmony. Those who aren't concerned could give the German version a chance as well. Just be careful: Walkthroughs are usually in English.
Yes, you heard right: withough a walkthrough, enjoyment suffers. Although there are three difficulty levels, even on the easiest one, the monsters are numerous and tough. The game world is huge and an unnecessary trip from one city to another one can take up several hours without leading to any progress. That is why a walkthrough is just an adequate tool for basic orientation in this hostile world. There is still plenty of room for endless individual and final battles. But even diplomatic actions influence the course of the non-linear plot. Also, there are of course practical considerations, like logistic ones concerning the limited inventory space. There is the issue ot party management and character development. Or questions like this one come up:
Which spell are you really looking forward to for the next level-up of your mage?
Last, but not least, you can enjoy the bizarre characters, who present themselves in profound text snippets. Of course, the inclined adventurer would just like to have an alien species join his party here and there, for example to profit from the immense battle experience of Xen Xheng – the headmaster of the Dojo school 5 Flowers in the city of Munkharama. Such requests will only be answered by the sequel Wizardry 8, however, where even the already introduced and story-relevant Vi Domina can join the party as a Valkyrie.
In Wizardry VII, roleplaying complexity and creative details have been woven together artfully with game mechanics maybe considered primitive these days. However, a look towards successful current titles like Might and Magic X shows that the dated step-wise movement across a grid compared to the fluid movement a là Ultima Underworld I & II is more a question of player taste rather than a technical limitation.
It lies in the nature of role-playing games to fight. The frequent encounters in Wizardry VII can become tiring in spite of the sophisticated battle system. Also, there are the long idle times in front of the screen while the same jungle tootles on, waiting for the regeneration of life points, just to have your party ambushed by a random enemy. It would be really easy to throw the game into a corner in frustration. Though it is much too fascinating to leave it there.
P.S. Those who would like to cheat may be interested in starting out with a powerful party. I'm offering to generate an arbitrary party according to your wishes with increased stats. If you always wanted to play a faerie-ninja, get in touch!
Translated by Mr Creosote