Wizardry II: The Final Riddle

Level 6 of Knight of Diamonds is basically a big power fantasy, sending hordes of absurdly overpowered monsters at you so you can squash them with your even more absurdly overpowered heroes. That can be fun, but I did finally decide to get on with it and win the game. You don’t even really need to visit level 6 at all to do this. The ending takes place back on level 1, where you complete your quest by handing in the outfit you collected in the boss fights of levels 1 through 5.

There’s one way that level 6 connects to the ending, though: the riddle. When you fork over your loot to the goddess Gnilda, before she bestows upon you the final macguffin, she asks you “What is the answer to the sphynx’s riddle?”. The “sphynx” in question is on level 6, guarding nothing more than a shortcut back to level 1. So you don’t even really have to deliver the answer to the being who poses the riddle in the first place, but it’s a useful way to try out guesses without consequence. If you give Gnilda the wrong answer, you still lose your stuff and get nothing in exchange.

And now this post is going to descend into griping. According to one second-hand source I’ve found online, Sir-Tech customer service fielded more complaints about that riddle than about anything else, which would explain why they left it out of the Nintendo version.

First of all, I’m not at all sure that I actually ever found the bulk of level 6 the first time I won this game. That’s because it breaks a promise. We’re told that the use of a light spell like MILWA or (preferably) LOMILWA will reveal any secret doors — and that means that secret doors basically aren’t a factor for the bulk of the game; the only times you ever don’t have a LOMILWA going are (A) when you’re too low-level to cast it (which also means you’re too low-level to be even considering transferring over to Knight of Diamonds) and (B) when you’re in a darkness field of the sort I described in my last post. I honestly have no idea which of the doors on my maps are secret ones. All doors look the same to me. Well, except for a few in the lower levels of Knight of Diamonds, which are apparently extra-secret doors, invisible even under magical light. It would have been very easy for me to not know they were there.

And that would cause some problems for the riddle. See, the sphynx tells you to find three clues scattered around the level. Recall that you can’t teleport on level 6. If you trust that walls are walls, and you’ve thoroughly looked around the small space that’s visible available, it’s hard to see where they could be scattered. What do you do then? What the game expects you to do is walk into walls just in case the rules have changed.

Still, it hardly matters, because the three clues are actually useless. Here they are, see for yourself:

That king, the king who worships gold, will no more see his treasure room

That king, the king who worships power, will have none within his tomb

That king, the king who worships these, that king, he finds doom

Now, the brief bit of lore in the single page of documentation does talk about an evil usurper and an attempt to overthrow him, using the legendary Knight of Diamonds armor, that brought down the castle and turned it into the dungeon you’ve been exploring. So you might think to try the usurper’s name, Davalpus. When that doesn’t work, you might try the only other two named characters in the story, Margda and Alavik. But in fact the answer is “THE KNIGHT OF DIAMONDS”, and I don’t see how that fits at all. It is, on the other hand, a fairly easy thing to guess if you ignore the clues. The clues actually make the riddle harder.

If I squint, I can kind of see it justified as a twist revelation, that the “king who worships gold” etc. is actually Alavik, the actually-evil ostensible hero of the backstory, or possibly the original Knight of Diamonds that the armor was made for was actually evil, or maybe it’s even describing the player characters, accumulating treasure and levels for their own sake. Revelations in the form of riddles can be highly effective — Andrew Plotkin’s System’s Twilight has some smashing puzzles of this sort, where it tells you a story and then, some time later, asks you a question about things just outside of what was narrated. There, the very posing of the question provokes reevaluation, makes you come to new realizations just by making you think about things from a new angle. If that’s what they were going for in Knight of Diamonds, all I can say is that System’s Twilight did a much better job of it. There, when I realized what the answer had to be, I knew what it meant.

Wizardry II: How Level 6 Resists Mapping

At this point, I could probably just go for the ending. The characters I imported were overpowered for the scenario, and even if they hadn’t been, the game is as eager to help you advance quickly as it is to kill you without warning. The dagger that instantly transforms a thief into a ninja, available only as a rare drop in the previous scenario, is available for purchase in the town. There are similar items findable in the dungeon for attaining the other advanced classes, and if you (justifiably) don’t trust that kind of magic and want to make Lords and Ninjas the hard way, there are items that facilitate that too, giving permanent boosts to various stats.

But even as it accelerates advancement, it slows exploration. And that’s why I haven’t ended things yet. I still want to map out the dungeon as thoroughly as I can. (That’s why I’m replaying this, remember?)

How does it impede exploration? First, there are places you can’t teleport to. Teleporting blind is a foolish gamble anyway, betting that the spot you’ve picked isn’t occupied by solid rock. But when you can’t even teleport to places you know, you lose a valuable shortcut, as well as a way to be sure where you are.

Speaking of which: There is a low-level spell called DUMAPIC that’s extremely valuable for exploring confusing areas with teleporters and spinners and indistinguishable rooms. All it does is tell you your current coordinates and heading. When the game really wants an area to be disorienting, it just disables this. There are anti-magic fields where no one, player or enemies, can cast any spells at all, but there are also specific anti-DUMAPIC fields. Such a field covers the entirety of level 6.

Even worse are the darkness fields. By default, you can see one space around you. With a spell providing light, you can see two more spaces beyond that, and that is the state in which any sane person plays most of the game. When in magical darkness, you can’t see at all. The first-person view is simply filled with a grey dither pattern. The only way to tell where the walls are is by bumping into them, making mapping slow and laborious, and at the same time absolutely necessary. Darkness is so discouraging that the first elevator back in Wizardry I is protected by nothing else, secured by just the fact that the player’s first instinct on entering darkness is just to try to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Level 6 of Knight of Diamonds combines all of this. You can’t teleport to it. Reaching it for the first time means sliding down a chute into darkness where you can’t use DUMAPIC. The only way I know to find the coordinates where the chute comes out is to teleport straight up, and cast DUMAPIC from there. There are stairs leading down from level 5, but they’re behind a one-way door; if you’re being sensible and not teleporting blind, the only way to find them is from the underside, approaching the level 5 boss backward.

Wizardry II: Riddles

The boss fight against the shield on level 2 of Knight of Diamonds is immediately preceded by something new for the engine: a riddle. Wizardry I and II have both had riddle-like things going on before this — notably, on level 1, you get a mysterious hint about how to reach the boss, but the solution there is “use a teleport spell to get past the teleport square that creates the endless-corridor effect”. But here on level 2, for the first time, the game wants you to answer in text, typing in the answer.

It’s not a difficult riddle. It goes on for so long, you’re pretty much guaranteed to figure it out before it’s over, and yet it keeps on going. The thing that impresses me is that it fits so naturally into its environment that I’m not sure I even noticed it was a new mechanic the first time I played through this episode. It just seems like an extension of two things that already existed: spots that give you a bunch of text when you step on them, and spots that block your way unless you’re carrying the right key item.

And that makes me think back to the riddles in Wonderquest. I was quite critical of those, in my most recent post on the game earlier this year. They didn’t seem to fit in at all well there, even though there were in some ways better-integrated with their environment: they had game-mechanical effects beyond letting you do something you could do if they weren’t there, and sometimes the content of the riddles concerned game content. So what gives?

I think what’s really going on is this: Wonderquest is primarily a puzzle game. Wizardry is not. It has puzzlish aspects, like confusing mazes and figuring out how to best take advantage of the mechanics, but it’s not focused on puzzles in the same way that Wonderquest is. So when we see a weak puzzle like a text riddle in Wizardry, it feels like just another manifestation of what it’s been doing all along, just extending its general design philosophy along a different branch. Whereas in Wonderquest, it feels like a downgrade, temporarily abandoning rich and complex mechanical puzzles for something relatively trivial.

Wizardry II is Mean

If I had to make a series of movies based on the Wizardry games, Knight of Diamonds would start with the heroes from the previous film. Flush from their success against Werdna, they descend cheerfully into the dungeon under Llylgamyn, encouraged by how relatively easy (but not trivial!) the opposition is. There are a few close-calls, followed by laughter and back-slapping camaraderie. Then they all suddenly get killed. The rest of the movie concerns a completely different team, inexperienced and nervous about attempting the quest that even the famous slayers of Werdna couldn’t complete.

It’s not just that the game is eager to kill your characters. That’s been a factor from the beginning. The impressive thing is how it springs it on you suddenly and unexpectedly. I found an item that, when used, grants the user a bunch of experience — not enough to gain a whole level, not at this point, but enough to get you a substantial amount of the way there. Afterwards, I noticed it was still in my inventory. Well, that’s actually fairly normal: magic items in this game don’t have charges, exactly, but they have a percent chance of breaking after each use. It looked like the idea was to keep milking this thing for XP until it broke. It turns out that when it breaks, it kills the user.

And not just kills, but renders them “Lost”. Recall that death isn’t immediately final in this game: you get a couple of chances at undoing it, either at the Temple of Cant (which costs money) or with your party’s own cleric (free, but has a greater chance of failure). If resurrection fails, the deceased is reduced to ash, which takes a more powerful/expensive resurrection spell to undo. If that fails, the character is Lost, and cannot be recovered. Here in Knight of Diamonds, the kid gloves are off and things can just send you directly to Lost, skipping the intermediary steps.

And bear in mind that this is a dungeon designed for characters who beat Wizardry I. You can import characters who haven’t finished the quest and killed Werdna, but they still need to be fairly high level to survive the encounters in the dungeon here, especially the boss fights against clothing. So every senseless death represents the loss of a significant time investment. The game just wants to periodically deliver a big setback, to pad out the play time.

When the game was new, there was at least a little recourse: when something bad happened, if you were quick enough, you could eject the floppy before anything got written to it. I kind of get the impression that by Knight of Diamonds then designers were expecting the players to do this, and compensating for it. But it’s not an option under emulation.

Anyway, in addition to losing a character to greed and hubris, I managed to instantly Lose the rest of my party by carelessly teleporting into solid rock. One moment a promising party that I expect to last the rest of the adventure with only occasional substitutions, then poof. The shock of it is an experience you’d be hard-pressed to find in modern games — on purpose, at any rate.

On to Wizardry II

As I’ve said before, Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds would be treated as an expansion rather than a sequel today. You could easily imagine it as DLC. It’s not self-contained — it has no character creation system, so characters have to be imported from Wizardry I. It adds six new dungeon levels, and a whole bunch of new items and monster types (including wereameobas), but operates under exactly the same rules and magic system as the original. Where Wiz1 has a sizeable manual, the documentation for Wiz2 is a single page giving some new lore, a backstory concerning conflicts in the kingdom of Llylgamyn.

This lore is all but irrelevant. All you really need to know about your quest is this: You’re looking for the pieces of a very powerful outfit, and before you claim each piece, you have to subdue it. At the end of level 1, you have a boss fight against a suit of armor, and once you’ve beat it, one of your fighter-types can put it on. It’s extraordinarily good armor, and grants regeneration. Further levels will, if I recall correctly, involve fighting the helm, shield, and so forth. In other words, it’s the same basic idea as Kevin Wilson’s The Underoos That Ate New York!, but taken more seriously. Not entirely seriously, mind. Wizardry has always had a silly streak.

Unlike in Wizardry III, characters aren’t disempowered on import. You lose all your gear, which is a bit of a blow, but you keep all your experience levels and money — which means you can immediately go and buy the very best things available in the shop. Which aren’t the best things available in the game, of course. You can find better stuff in the dungeon. But still, it means my party is reasonably well-equipped and still just as overpowered as when they fought Werdna. So my progress through the dungeon is mainly limited not by the need to grind, but my desire to map the whole thing out. The dungeon levels are a great deal more satisfying than in Wiz1: more intricate and elaborate, and more pleasing to the eye when mapped out. It’s the usual effect in these older series: the first episode is made by people with no level design experience, the second by people with one released game under their belt.

Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn

Wizardry is one of the foundational CRPGs. There was a time when CRPGs were commonly described as either Ultima-style or Wizardry-style, the former referring to ones with a tile-based movement on a large map (such as Final Fantasy and The Magic Candle), the latter to ones with first-person navigation through grid-based dungeons (such as The Bard’s Tale and Dungeon Master). I myself played the original Wizardry as a child. I remember it took a very long time to complete, and seemed a monumental achievement. (I still have my official certificate of completion tucked away somewhere. I can’t imagine sending off for something like that today.) Of course, back then, the very basics of the genre were yet unfamiliar. Common practices like creating a balanced party and putting the mages in the back row had to be discovered by trial and error.

I didn’t play the immediate sequels when they were new, however. I wound up skipping ahead to Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna, which is more of a direct sequel to Wizardry I than Wizardry II or III is, and didn’t get to trying the others until they were anthologized in 1998. I made an attempt to play through the entire series in order, but got stuck in the middle of Wizardry III when I seemed to run out of dungeon to explore. (I later learned what my problem was; I’ll go into detail later.)

Wizardry II, it turned out, is more like an expansion pack to I than like what we’d recognize as a sequel today — a symptom of the infant games industry still struggling to figure things out. III altered the mechanics and UI quite a bit, but still can’t be run as a completely standalone game, as it provides no way to create characters. They have to be created in Wizardry I and imported, a process that apparently involved swapping multiple floppy disks in and out. Even just playing Wizardry I involved a fair amount of swapping on a single-floppy system, what with its separate diskettes for character and scenario data. The anthology edition was thoughtfully altered to use disk images on the hard drive instead, and to carry out the swapping automatically.

Now, I still have some of the characters that I used to play Wizardry III ten years ago. But I don’t intend to use them, except as emergency support. To get the full experience, I’m creating a brand new party, with brand new characters. And I’m getting them killed a lot. This is part of the experience. Level 1 characters stand little chance of surviving their first encounter, and it takes at least three or so encounters before they get to level 2. And getting killed doesn’t mean resetting to a save point or anything nicely forgiving like that. If your entire party gets killed, you roll up a new party. You do have the ability to recover bodies from where they fell — this is what I mean by “emergency support” — and you can can take them back to town to resurrect them for an exhorbitant fee, but even the resurrection spell has a significant chance of failing and rendering them lost forever. (And you don’t get a refund when this happens.) Understand that characters are reduced to level 1 when imported; losing a certain number of your characters is simply part of the plan. So, in contrast to most RPGs today, it’s best not to get too attached to them. I gave up long ago on the idea of giving everyone a distinctive and memorable name; I name my guys in batches like “Fitt”, “Mitt”, “Pitt”, etc. (The initial letter indicates the character class, for greater ease in building a party out of the survivors.)

I really haven’t played much yet, though. Most of today’s game time was spent making preparations: digging out the graph paper, printing up a crib sheet with all the spell descriptions on it, deciding where and how to play it — the game uses a CGA graphics mode that my usual gaming rig doesn’t even support, which forced me to use DOSBox, which made me realize that I might as well be playing it on my Macbook. And of course there was the time spent rolling up all the characters, which can take a while if you’re fussy. So there’s a lot of anticipation going into this. It’s a grand thing, and also a memory of a simpler time, with simpler computer systems.