Wizardry IV: Breaching the Surface

You spend the bulk of Wizardry IV with one goal: reaching the surface and escaping the dungeon. But achieving that goal isn’t the end of the game. It’s just the start of the endgame, set at the castle that was the player’s home base in Wizardry I, with all its familiar features: the Training Ground, Boltac’s Trading Post, etc. I spoke of the lower levels in Wizardry II as a power fantasy where you wipe the floor with immensely strong foes. The castle levels have another kind of power fantasy: facing off against low-level characters for the first time in ages and seeing how far beyond them you’ve become.

Where the Cosmic Cube gave us the first multi-layered experience in the series, the castle takes things a step further by giving us a coherent three-dimensional space: three levels designed as a geometrically unified whole. Where Wizardry III gave us a castle that was obviously fake, just a flat diagram of a castle, Wizardry IV gives us towers that are actually towers. And it’s made all the more satisfying by the way it pays off the unfulfilled promise of the three previous titles, turning the least real of places, a menu tree that we had to pretend to believe was a place, into the most real.

But at the same time, it’s struggling with the limitations of the engine again. When you get out onto the castle walls, you can walk off them and plummet to the level below — that much is straightforward enough. (The winged boots mysteriously stop working here.) But because it’s using the same wireframe-dungeon-corridor renderer as ever, you can’t see where the walls end. You basically have to feel out the shape of the thing by falling off the edge a bunch of times. And that doesn’t really fit with the fiction.

Sunlight makes some differences to gameplay. You can now teleport freely into the dungeon and back, the better to complete the puzzles you left behind. There are no random encounters in the surface world, just fixed ones at specific points. What was previously a sort of mixed combat RPG and adventure game is now more of a pure adventure game — that is, there are still combat encounters, but they basically fall into two categories: ones that are trivial, and ones that are themselves puzzles. I’ll go into more detail in my next post, when I describe the endings.

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