Wizardry V: Magical Symmetry

The Wizardry magic system has a skewed symmetry to it. Spellcasting enemies and monsters pull their powers from the same spell list as the player. That may not be so notable today, but it was not something you took for granted in CRPGs of the time. Mainly what it means is that anything you come to rely on to give you an edge in fights will eventually become something the enemy can do as well. Until you can defeat the final boss, there’s no perfect, unassailable supremacy. There’s just an arms race.

I call it “skewed” because, despite perfect symmetry in what spells are available, there’s asymmetry in how spells are used, and it’s produced by the basic asymmetry of a singe party going up against an entire dungeon full of monsters. The player has to worry about wasting spell slots that they might need later. For the monsters, there is no later. They literally only exist for the duration of an encounter. As a result, it makes sense for them to use spells that I’ve declared “not worth it”, especially when they outnumber you and can cast them in quantity. I particularly noticed this back with the single-target instant-death spells used by the Priests of Fung back in Wizardry III, but I’m seeing it more and more with Wizardry V‘s expanded spell list. There’s a spell HAKANIDO that “drains magic”, expending some of its (single) target’s spell slots. This can be devastating when cast on your own casters, who have to continue to deal with the loss after the fight is over, but doesn’t seem worth using on monsters in a normal encounter. It’s a spell that’s in the spell list mainly just so enemies can use it against you, putting it in the same category as things like Animate Dead in D&D. Nonetheless, it’s there for you to use if you want to, and maybe it’ll become more useful at some later point, when I’m facing enemies with high-level spells and preventing their casting is of paramount importance.

Plus of course there’s some trivial asymmetry in what spells are even useful to monsters. There are a number of utility spells that are only used outside of combat, which means combat encounters never use them. There are also combat spells that are only useful against specific types of target, like ZILWAN (does massive damage to undead) and MAGATO (banishes demons). But that’s a relatively trivial matter.

Wizardry V: Death of NPCs

I had a bit of a surprise recently. Remember how I said that there was an NPC (named the Ruby Warlock) blocking a passage, and he wouldn’t move unless I gave him something to drink, and after a few iterations of this I got tired of fetching drinks for him and decided to try fighting my way past him? Well, once you’ve killed him, he doesn’t show up at his post any more, the encounter replaced with a pack of “demon imps”. Before this, it had been a rule throughout the Wizardry series that enemy deaths aren’t permanent — that anything you kill in a fixed encounter comes back when you leave the dungeon level. Even Wizardry IV, the one game in the series to have any persistent effects on game logic that weren’t embodied in inventory, kept all deaths temporary.

That isn’t the surprise I mean, though. That came later, when I had occasion to go to the Temple of Cant in town for the first time in a while — my Priest had gotten paralyzed, and my Bishop hadn’t learned how to cure that yet. The UI for the Temple is a menu of all the dead or otherwise disabled characters who you can pay the priests to help. And there in the list was the Ruby Warlock.

I’ve confirmed since then that other NPCs show up at the temple when killed, and can be resurrected. (In a way, it seems a little unfair. When my guys die, I have to drag them out of the dungeon before the temple lists them.) So it’s basically an elegant general way to accommodate the player’s desire to solve problems through violence, and still provide an undo button in case you kill someone with important dialogue. Wiz5 is the first game in the series to need such a system, because it’s the first one to have killable NPCs who have functions other than being killed.

A few other random observations on this:

  • If you’re the kind of person who does genocide runs in Undertale, you can use the temple as a sort of trophy case, preserving the bodies of those you’ve offed.
  • The whole Wizardry system supports passwords on individual player characters, presumably to support multiple players playing from the same disks. It’s easy to imagine two players getting into fights over whether a given NPC should be dead or not, one player repeatedly killing them and the other repeatedly resurrecting them.
  • I’ve talked with enough NPCs to get the impression that the final boss is a demonic being known as the Sorn. I wonder if the Sorn is resurrectable?

Wizardry V: The New Spells

OK, let’s take a good hard look at the new spell names and see what they tell us about the implied magical language. We’ve got fully 29 new spells — nearly half of the list of 63, mostly for Mages rather than Priests. A couple of them — LADALTO, LABADI — are just an obvious extension of what was already there, adding the prefix LA-, as previously seen in LAHALITO, to other existing spells. (LA- just means “the effect is even stronger than you get with the prefix MA-“.) Similarly, MAMOGREF is immediately recognizable as the common intensifying prefix MA- applied to the existing protection spell MOGREF, and this is borne out by its effect.

A few of the new names just confuse me. DESTO opens locks, but previously -TO only ended attack spells. Maybe it’s conceived as attacking the lock? I guess in a way it’s overcoming defenses? LITOFEIT is obviously connected to the previously-existing LOKTOFEIT, but LOKTOFEIT is the “teleport out of the dungeon” spell, whereas LITOFEIT is levitation. I suppose the common factor is rising up, Wizardry III notwithstanding. I’d feel a lot more comfortable about this if LOK- or LIT- appeared anywhere else. MOLITO, which does group electrical damage, seems to have been replaced with a weaker, lower-level version called MELITO. This is a pattern not seen elsewhere, and it frankly seems a little grammatically implausible to me.

We know there’s a prefix LO- from the existence of MILWA (temporary light) and LOMILWA (permanent light). We now have a spell LOKARA that looks like it has the same prefix, but although KARA looks reasonable, it isn’t on the list. What’s more, what LOKARA does is attempt to make the earth swallow up foes (an instant-death effect to which flying creatures are immune). What would KARA do, make the earth swallow them up for a little while?

Both Mages and Priests get a spell that conjures elementals: SOCORDI and BAMORDI, respectively. I note the root DI (life) in there, which seems fitting. -ORDI could mean elemental, in a sense like “brought to life” or “artificial life” or something, the remainder of the word indicating two different ways of going about it. And the BAM in the Priest version could shed light on BAMATU. I had wondered about that — it made it look like BAMATU should mean “opposite of MATU” when in fact it’s a stronger version of it. What if the prefix is actually BAM? We see -ATU in a couple of other new spells: BOLATU (petrify one creature) and KATU (charm NPC). This does not convince me it’s a morpheme.

CORTU and BACORTU are an interesting pair. CORTU creates a “screen” that blocks any enemy spells cast at the party. BACORTU creates a “fizzle field” that prevents a single enemy group from casting spells, offensive or otherwise. These are both new concepts, and they’re distinct things, mechanically. But they’re hardly opposites. Maybe I’ve got entirely the wrong handle on BA-. Maybe instead of “opposite”, it means something like “counterpart”, or even “enemy”: just as DIOS is a spell you cast on your friends (to heal them) and BADIOS is a presumably similar spell you cast on your enemies (to hurt them), so too is CORTU a protective effect on your friends and BACORTU a limiting effect on your enemies.

Mainly, though, I’m probably trying too hard to make sense of things. The new spells, for all that they try to harmonize with the legacy ones, are the product of a different designer’s mind. Who knows how much of the intent behind the names was communicated to him and how much he made up?

Wizardry V: Lock and Key

Progress continues apace, although the sheer amount of dungeon to explore means I’m still on level 2. I’m getting a strong sense that each level is divided into multiple distinct areas, in irregular shapes, where each area has either one or two major puzzles in it. Wiz4 was kind of like this too, but there the areas were entire levels, and here they’re just not-quite-isolated sections of grid that fit together in the overall map like jigsaw pieces. It’s tempting to declare that the grid doesn’t matter, that all we really need to do is identify the areas and how they relate to each other, but the grid is still important for identifying empty space where undiscovered rooms can be found.

A lot of the puzzles are lock-and-key in nature, but slightly disguised: a lock in the form of a machine with a token slot and a key in the form of a bag of tokens for it, or a door held shut with chains that you need a hacksaw to open. That one counts as a case of Caesar’s Ladder, I suppose: you have to find a hacksaw somewhere in the dungeon simply because the world outside the dungeon is unreasonably small and shallow. That’s something that hasn’t changed.

At one point, there’s a wizard who blocks your way and demands alcohol. This is a twist on the lock-and-key puzzle you only get in RPGs: ones where if you don’t have the key, you can beat up the lock instead. I had what he wanted, but unlike most keys, giving it to him uses it up, forcing you to fetch it afresh from a different area (guarded by a hurkle beast) if you ever want to go that way again. So on my third pass, with considerable trepidation, I tried fighting him. This is the sort of thing that some previous titles would punish with hard and sudden death, but we’ve got a new designer on board, and it wasn’t too bad. My party lost more health than I liked, though. I’m not trying it again any time soon.

Wizardry V: Big Maps

Some years before embarking on my current Wizardry run, I randomly found a nicely-bound quadrille-ruled notebook in a garage sale. It had just over 20 squares on the horizontal axis, so I declared it to be a perfect medium for 20×20 Wizardry maps, and tucked it away in anticipation of the day that I got back to the series. The satisfaction of having all my maps officially squared away together like this has been a significant part of my motivation for continuing to play the series over the last couple of months.

So imagine my dismay on discovering that Wizardry V breaks the bounds! Dungeon levels here are significantly lager than 20×20 — I don’t know what the maximum size is, and the shape of my maps so far doesn’t give me much of a hint. What’s more, the levels extend in all directions from the origin. In Wiz1-4, once you could find map coordinates with DUMAPIC, you could confidently place (0, 0) in the lower left corner of your paper. You can’t do that here. Or, well, you can, because it doesn’t really matter where you start; you’re probably going to go past the edge at some point no matter what you do. You just have to accept that your maps will be in multiple pieces and try to find good places to break them.

Despite my complaint, I do think this is an overall good thing for the game. For one thing, recall all the complaints I’ve made about how short the mapping and exploration phase of each level was relative to the amount of grinding needed to survive on the next. Making the exploration phase last longer is certainly one way to solve that. But I think the larger impact is simply the lack of any sense of finality. When you’ve seen every square of a 20×20 grid, you know you’re finished. When you don’t know how big the map is, there’s always a possibility that there’s more you haven’t discovered.

Indeed, I’ve already hit a couple of points where I thought I was probably done exploring dungeon level 1 (apart from a few locked doors that I don’t seem to be able to get through yet), then thought of something else to try, and was rewarded with new territory to explore. This is something that this game is doing a lot better than its predecessors, and it requires not just the map size but multiple ways of locking off content to enable it. Hence all the changes to how doors work.

Wizardry V: Dialogue

Well, I’ve found the plot. In the north of dungeon level 1, there’s a temple full of mad priests, some of whom attack you, but the head priest is willing to parlay. He tells you about the bad guy du jour and his his plan to unleash massive destructive forces. Ho hum. I suspect that this is connected to the cataclysms in Wizardry III (which, remember, didn’t go entirely resolved in that game), but I haven’t seen this stated explicitly.

The reason I’m devoting an entire post to this dialogue is that it’s interactive. That’s a first for the series — we’ve had riddles before, but not conversations. It’s essentially what IF fans call an ask/tell system: you type in topics to ask the priest about, in the hope that they’re in his dialogue table. From other games, I know this is a system prone to problems. It’s all too easy to author the content in such a way that essential information is either easily missed, locked behind topics that the player doesn’t guess, or accessible out of sequence, easily-guessed topics referencing things you haven’t been told yet. But we’ll see.

I suppose it’s a case of Wizardry expanding its ludic vocabulary and experimenting with what Wizardry can be, but it feels fairly mild in that regard. Wizardry IV was all a grand experiment, twisting both form and content in unanticipated directions. Key-word dialogue is new territory for Wizardry, but it’s already well-trodden ground. Ultima had been using it for ages by this point.

Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom

Going into Wizardry V immediately after the first four games feels a lot like switching from Wizardry to Might and Magic did. There’s just a lot of little changes. The wireframe dungeon graphics are unaltered, but the text font is different and the monster pics are bigger and more finely detailed. Secret doors work completely differently and apparently locked doors are a thing now, although I haven’t seen any yet. Thieves have new Hide/Ambush actions to make them more useful in combat. There’s a whole system of weapon ranges to complicate the front row/back row stuff. There are bows.

The spell lists keep mainstays like MAHALITO, DIOS, KATINO, and TILTOWAIT, but throw out a lot of the useless and redundant stuff and add in new things with a greater variety of effects. There are spells that add new concepts like summoning elementals and making screens that block enemy magic — way too high-level for me at the moment, but they’re something to look forward to. There are spells to deal with the new dungeon mechanics, like one that unlocks doors. There’s a levitation spell that sounds like it duplicates the effect of the winged boots in Wiz4, but in a more baked-in, systematic way. And with all the new spell names, we get a bunch of new morphemes that I’m going to have to analyze at some point. (I don’t think they’re being entirely consistent with their word production, but that’s okay. Natural language isn’t entirely consistent either.)

Things are so changed that the game doesn’t even try to support importing characters from previous titles. For the first time since Wizardry I, the game has its own character creation system. It seems to be basically the same as in Wiz1, with the same classes and races and stat ranges, but the end result of creating a character is changed in one significant way: instead of each character getting a small amount of gold to buy equipment with, they all get some basic starting equipment, which can’t be sold for cash. In other words, you can’t prepare for your first delve by pooling the party’s gold and buying good gear for the front line. Possibly for the first time ever, I’ve sent fighters into the dungeon wearing nothing but leather armor.

Fortunately, the first dungeon level is gentle enough that leather is all you need — I’ve gotten my entire party up to experience level 2 without any deaths at all, just like back in Wiz1. Just one more sign that, in contrast to 2, 3, and 4, this game was intended as a jumping-on point for new players. I’d be thinking of it as a reboot, if it weren’t for those fan sites that described it as part of the Llylgamyn Saga.

Is it connected to the rest of the Llylgamyn Saga in plot? I don’t know; I haven’t seen any plot yet. Not even the manual contains any indication of why we’re exploring this dungeon or what the Heart of the Maelstrom is — a message in the game seems to suggest that the dungeon is the Heart of the Maelstrom, but that’s all I know.

What I am getting is a strong impression of refinement, of the designers adjusting the rules to make it a better expression of what they intended all along, in ways that they couldn’t do while it was all technologically linked to Wiz1. Even the starting equipment is part of it, forcing players to not skip the initial part of the intended upgrade chain.