Wizardry IV: Choosing the Potato

Around Halloween, there was a viral Twitter thread about offering trick-or-treaters a choice between candy or a potato. Just show them a bowl of candy with a few potatoes in it and let them choose. While most children choose candy, enough chose the potato that the person doing the experiment ran out of potatoes. I think it’s easy to understand why. Potatoes are different. None of the other houses were offering potatoes. I posit that the children didn’t desire potatoes specifically, they just wanted to participate in unique events.

This is obviously relevant to game design. I play a lot of games, so naturally I choose novelty where I can, picking unique character classes. I got into the habit of picking female characters when given the choice mainly because so many games didn’t support it! But Wizardry IV illustrates the potato principle in a much more trick-or-treaty way.

Every time you win a fight, you get to pick over the inventory of those you defeated, and choose which items, if any, you want to take with you. This is an entirely new UI for the series. In previous titles, if loot from an encounter included any items at all — which it usually didn’t — they were just randomly handed to any character with a free slot to hold them. But here, you have only one character who can hold things, and even after you’ve acquired the equivalent of a bag of holding, you can only pick things up into the slots for things you’re holding directly. It’s not uncommon for the drops to overflow that. So you get a choice.

And it’s usually a pretty easy choice, because most items are things that Werdna can’t use: armor, swords, shields, etc. On level 1, you pick up a staff and a robe. Later on, you have a few opportunities to pick up a better staff, but not many. Hats and cloaks are sometimes an improvement over what you have. But mostly you just look at what’s on offer, ask “Do I need any healing right now?”, and if the answer is “yes”, pick out the potions. Which frequently aren’t even healing potions, in which case you just drop them to free up room — you don’t identify items until after they’re chosen..

But occasionally, you see something unique. A “silk cloth”, say, or a “weighty cube”, or a “holy reliquary”. These are the potatoes in the candy: unique opportunities, mostly key items crucial to advancing the plot. So of course you take them!

There’s one special trick the game plays with this, and it has to do with the witch’s brew puzzle I described earlier. Recall that the witch describes all the ingredients she needs in oblique terms that the player has to puzzle out. One of the things she needs is a blender. Experienced Wizardry players will immediately know what this means: the Blade Cusinart’ [sic], one of the most powerful weapons in the series, a whirling blade that greatly increased the number of strikes its wielder gets in each round. (Wikipedia specifically cites this puzzle as defying localization.) But the Blade Cusinart is a drop from an encounter, and before it’s identified — when you have to choose it — it’s just called “sword”. By the time it shows up, you’ve given up on swords. They’re never useful — except this once. Most key items, you stumble into. Just this once, you have to know what you’re looking for.

Wizardry IV: Back Below

This is playing more and more like an adventure game — specifically, an old-school one with obscure puzzles that are easy to get stuck on, separated by enough geography that it makes sense to keep multiple saves at different locations to facilitate trying out ideas. Today, I gave up on the Cube for a while and spent some time in the floors below, exploring the last remaining bits of the map. It was fairly productive.

On the fifth floor, I found an oxygen mask. It turned out to be pretty close to the stairs up, but when I found those stairs initially, I just stopped exploring the fifth floor. As an experienced Wizardry player, I understood the significance: the KATINO/MAKANITO/LAKANITO family of spells are all described in the Wizardry I manual as operating by changing the air around the target. KATINO isn’t much of a problem — only very low-level enemies seem to ever use it — and MAKANITO simply doesn’t affect you once you’re past level 8 or so, but LAKANITO was a frequent source of frustration in the Cube, as it gave sufficiently-powerful casters a chance of just killing Werdna instantly. Well, no more. I wish I had found this mask sooner.

Down in the minefield of the third floor, I took advantage of those winged boots I had found. Even when you’re flying, you’re notified when you’re above a mine, allowing me to really complete my map. Moreover, I found a chunk of amber in the shape of a dragon, and immediately knew what to do with it: at the top of the ziggurat, there’s an altar to the Dreampainter, with three holes just waiting to receive gemstones in three colors. This is a place where the game trolls the player. Shortly before you reach the amber, there’s a pyrite deposit, which, unlike the amber, is reasonably visible to and reachable by someone who isn’t flying. Like the amber, it’s yellow, so it’s natural to try it in the altar, but I suppose the Dreampainter doesn’t appreciate being called a fool, because it results in immediate death. The game is fond of this sort of monkey business. Another example: When you equip items, the game asks you if you want to invoke their special powers. When you put on the winged boots, for example, you have to invoke them to fly. Now, the UI doesn’t support just equipping one item; you have to choose everything at once, and then it prompts you about each invokable item. If you’re carrying the winged boots but not equipping them, it asks if you want to invoke them just so they can fly away without you if you say yes. As far as I know, this is the only item in the game that you can invoke while it’s unequipped, and this special case was made just for the sake of a practical joke on the player.

Finally, while in the ziggurat area, I went and did what I consider to be the most unfair puzzle in the game: getting inside a doorless chamber by abusing the already-abused paradigm of the level even further. I actually had to get some help from online for this, even though I half-remembered the solution, because the solution only works from a specific location, and the only indication of this is a too-cryptic hint from the Wandering Oracle. I know that I said before that the game isn’t as hard as it’s cracked up to be and I didn’t have that much trouble with it the first time around, but now that I see this again, I remember having to consult hints about it then too. I wonder where I got them? Not off the Web; that didn’t exist yet.

Wizardry IV: Cosmic Cube Continued

By now, I’ve thoroughly mapped out the Cosmic Cube. Past a certain point, you can be pretty sure when you’re on the right track simply because it becomes harder to follow. You get choices about where to go, and most of them lead back to things you’ve seen before, the maze trying to shake you off. It’s a familiar pattern — the level immediately before the Cube, the Wandering Maze, does something similar, the final approach to the stairs onward being lined with one-way walls just to make you redo large portions of the maze if you make a single misstep.

But I followed things to their conclusion, and I was rewarded with a sign telling me that I had finally found “THE EGRESS” — right at a blank wall. I know from my maps what’s on the other side of that wall: a staircase leading up, which I saw early in my explorations, but was unable to reach, due to a couple of hidden chutes that send you deeper into the maze as a sort of prank. It’s the prank aspect that really convinced me that it was in fact the actual egress, and that the sign marked the place I could access it from if I solved one more puzzle — one that I didn’t remember at all from my first playthrough, decades ago.

I said in my last post that the whole Cube section begins with a Smullyanesque logic puzzle, but it didn’t seem to make a difference — no matter what passageway you took, they’d join up after a while. Maybe the choice really did matter? In earlier titles, this would be impossible: there was no persistent state other than your characters and their inventory. But I had evidence that Wizardry IV was different. Throughout most of the game, Werdna is hunted by the ghost of Trebor, who moves about slowly and intangibly, making threats as he approaches and providing a new purpose for the old “locate dead people” spell that would otherwise be useless in this game (and was barely useful even in Wizardry I). He’s generally easy to avoid if you keep moving, but it’s still a relief when you find a way to get rid of him for good: by applying a relic of Saint Trebor. (Saint? The Mad Overlord? History is written by the victors, I guess.) The point is, once Trebor’s ghost is gone, it’s gone, even if you ditch the relic. And that means the engine is capable of setting flags.

So I tried starting over from the beginning of the Cube — I’ve been keeping a save just before the stairs in, just in case something like this happened — and this time I made sure I went through the correct path in the beginning. No dice. The egress was still unegressable. But then, the warning didn’t just warn about that one choice, did it? It said to watch my step in general and keep to the golden path, whatever that is. Maybe I had to plan my route more thoroughly? As I said before, the Cube is basically a directed graph. I’ve drawn that graph out, the better to plan. The final few steps are unambiguous, but the rest? Maybe I need a path that goes through all the “This Way to the Egress” signs. Maybe I need to avoid chutes. There are two particular places where you pick up important items; the correct route, if there is such a thing, probably goes through both of those. I have a bunch of possibilities to try, and it’s going to take a while to try each one, because wandering adventurers keep truncating my progress.

While writing this post, it occurred to me to check if I could avoid falling down chutes by wearing the Winged Boots I had picked up earlier. I can’t, it turns out. But at least they’re useful for not taking damage from pit traps.

Wizardry IV: Cosmic Cube

Dungeon levels 3 through 1 comprise the “Cosmic Cube”, a three-tiered funhouse of a maze. The previous floors have all been theme levels, where the entire level is devoted to a gimmick like “mines” or “alternating tiles are darkness fields” or “spinners at every intersection”. In the Cosmic Cube, you get lots of little temporary gimmicks in their own walled-off sections, like pieces of a patchwork quilt, joined by a network of stairs, chutes, and teleporters. We’re still in monochrome wireframe, but if you were to do a HD remake of the game, I think you’d want to do this entire section in a variety of garish colors and mismatching architectural styles. It has something of a circus vibe to it, partly because of the occasional signs saying “THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS”.

It’s also a lot more effective as a maze than your typical one-tiered Wizardry maze that’s mostly limited by planar geometry. Those stairs, chutes, and teleporters effectively turn it from a grid to a general graph — a directed graph, even, because every connection is one-way. A warning sign at the entrance to the whole thing lets you know that once you’re in the Cube, there’s no going back. (It also asks “Have you forgotten something?”) I know this to be something of a lie; even if I didn’t remember that much from my first run, it’s pretty apparent that you have to be able to get back down when you find one of the ingredients for that witch brew I mentioned earlier. But the experienced Wizardry player knows by now not to trust signs. Those Egress posters lead nowhere in particular. The very first thing you see in the Cube is a simple logic puzzle directing you through one of three doors and warning you that choosing the wrong door could leave you going in circles forever, but in fact it doesn’t really matter which door you take. 1UPDATE: This last part may not be true. Details in my next post, probably.

There’s one bit of writing that you can absolutely rely on, though, and it’s one of my favorite puzzles in the game, because it involves mapping. There’s a certain enemy later on that can only be defeated in a certain way, and the key to it is said to be in “letters of stone”, which you might think means carved into a stone tablet or something, but in fact it means letter shapes formed from the solid rock areas on levels 1 through 4 acting as map-tile-sized pixels. By the time you find the entrance to the Cube at all, the first-time player has probably explored level 4 enough to notice the giant “K” laid out, and wonder about it. Mapping out each letter bit by bit feels like an act of excavation, revealing partial shapes at first, then completing and making sense of them.

One other thing: The way that the Cube takes up multiple dungeon floors, and keeps pinging you around from one floor to another, changes your relationship to encounters. Adventurers can be killed, but their death lasts only until you either go to a different floor or quit — and recall that the game only gets saved when you quit. (It lets you keep up to 8 different saves, though, which is handy when you can’t go backward.) On a normal level, I’d try to fight the difficult full-party encounters early on just so I could explore freely without worrying about meeting them again. But when you’re only going to be spending a little time on the level before falling down a chute, there’s not much point. You do still have to challenge and defeat the stronger enemies at least once, but only because they’re carrying plot-critical items.

References
1 UPDATE: This last part may not be true. Details in my next post, probably.

Wizardry IV: More About Encounters

The random encounters or “wandering monsters” in Wizardry IV aren’t really monsters at all, but adventurers, listed the way player characters are listed in a normal Wizardry, with their status, current hit points, character class, and even alignment. This is a lot more information than you ever get about monsters, including your allies. That’s a pretty big change for combat. In previous titles, you could see who in your party needs healing or other restorations, but not whether you’re close to killing enemies. In Wiz4, it’s the reverse. (Not that Werdna can cast healing spells anyway!)

As a result, I’m not entirely sure what the rules are governing monsters replenishing themselves. I think they don’t retain damage between encounters — which is only fair, because the adventurers definitely don’t. If you don’t kill them outright, they’ll be back to full health the next time you meet them. It also seems like spellcasting monsters don’t use up spell slots from encounter to encounter. In fact, I’m not at all sure that they have spell slots at all. Back in Wiz3, it was definitely possible for the the Priests of Fung to use up their spells and revert to physical attacks in a protracted encounter, but this was only noticeable due to anti-magic fields drawing the battle out. Fights in Wiz4 tend to end before that point, one way or the other.

What about fixed encounters? There are a lot of fights against specific enemies in specific locations in this game; in a previous title, I might have called these “boss fights”, but here, they’re really too numerous to qualify for that honor. These are mostly against monstrous guardians and sentinels of various sorts: things in sarcophagi, hellhounds, golems, something froglike and sort of humanoid. Level 5 is chock-a-block with powerful moths and/or butterflies of various sorts. But the only things really identifying them as monstrous are their name and portrait. The UI treats them just like any other encounter — and that means that every one of them is assigned a character class. That hellhound is a fighter. Some of the moths are ninjas. And the game seems to mean it, too: where the monsters on my side frequently have abilities only available to monsters, like level drain or summoning reinforcements, the enemy monsters are just monster-shaped adventurers, with exactly the powers and limitations of their class.

Wizardry IV: Going Back Down

I’m up to dungeon level 4/Werdna level 7. That means I have access to every spell, including MALOR, the teleport spell. It’s not as useful as you might think. Every Wizardry game so far has had places you can’t teleport to, and in Wizardry IV, that includes most places. You definitely can’t teleport above the highest level you’ve reached, but I’ve had only occasional success going downward too. The “occasional” part is a little maddening; if teleportation never worked, I wouldn’t be in the position of not understanding why it works sometimes. If I recall correctly, you eventually get a power-up that unlocks full teleportation everywhere, but not until basically the end.

And that’s a bit of a shame, because a shortcut or two back would be handy right now. I haven’t found the stairs up on level 4, despite a pretty thorough search. It’s possible that I’ve just missed them — the level’s theme is Wandering Maze, and it’s a chaotic and difficult-to-navigate mass of one-way walls and rotating tiles1A new element that rotates its walls 90 degrees every time you step on it. Distinct from spinner tiles, which randomly reorient the player but don’t change the architecture., so it wouldn’t be hard to miss a thing or two in the confusion. But unless and until I spot those stairs, I’m shifting gears from the mad scramble upward to backfilling puzzle content. There are several puzzles I’ve left behind on previous levels, largely because they require items you don’t find until later. In other words, the game is turning more and more into an adventure game — albeit one where people attack you sometimes.

Also, on level 4, the reverse happens: there’s a puzzle that requires items from previous levels that you may or may not have picked up. A witch requires ingredients for a potion, and they’re all described a little cryptically. For example, she asks for “rabbit’s fur”, which is the “magician’s hat” you might have acquired as loot in an encounter. “Tannic acid” identifies a “witching rod”, which makes sense if you remember where you found it: floating in a pool of water rendered caustic by the acorns steeping in it. So, there’s another reason to backtrack. To hunt for anything you missed, in the hope that the witch’s potion will somehow produce stairs.

References
1 A new element that rotates its walls 90 degrees every time you step on it. Distinct from spinner tiles, which randomly reorient the player but don’t change the architecture.

Wizardry IV: Running Away

One thing about the gameplay in Wizardry IV that’s a lot different from any previous game in the series: you run away from a lot more encounters. In the previous games, fleeing is nearly always futile — I think the chance of failure rises with the number of enemies you face, which means that the encounters where you really need to flee, the ones where you’re completely outnumbered, are exactly the ones you can’t. And when you fail to flee, you just don’t get to do anything for a combat round. It’s all set up to punish you for trying.

Whereas Wizardry IV is more set up to punish you for standing your ground. Recall that there’s no XP, that Werdna’s power, and the power of his monsters, is bound to your upward progress through the dungeon. This means it’s impossible to grind until you’re ahead of the game. Indeed, you spend the first part of each level behind it, when you haven’t found a pentagram yet. At that point, not only are you underpowered for the level, you also have no way or replenishing your spells, short of backtracking. You just have to try to explore while rationing your spell slots and dodging adventurers. Maybe this is why it’s considered to be the hardest of the early series. You can’t simply overpower it. But on the bright side, adventurers are a lot easier to escape than monsters — perhaps because you never meet more than six at a time.

In fact, each level seems to have only two or three full parties on it. The vast majority of adventurers are running solo, which is absurd, especially for fighters. And the full teams have some peculiar traits. First, they all have team names, like “Sorriman’s Sorcerers” or “Gomez’s Gorillas”, to make them more recognizable. Second, sometimes some of them will be already slain. In fact, if you fight them, kill some, and retreat, the ones you kill will still be dead when you meet the team again. But sometimes there are casualties even the first time. As far as I can tell, I’m the only thing in the dungeon capable of killing adventurers. Maybe the dead ones are ones I encountered and slew separately from the party? I haven’t really been keeping track of names.

Thirdly, sometimes you’ll meet the same party repeatedly in the same area. In particular, if you walk through a door, meet a party, flee, and walk through the door again, there’s a good chance you’ll meet the same party again. I haven’t noticed this happening with solitary individuals, but then, I tend to flee from them less often. Is the game actually tracking the adventurers’ positions, moving them through the maze? This is highly contrary to habit; wandering monsters have been mere stochastic events from D&D onward. But it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. There’s one non-combat encounter that you can actually see wandering the maze: the Oracle of Mron, who roams every level of the dungeon, dispensing puzzle hints for a fee. The Oracle is visible as the same sort of nonspecific mark on the floor as every other special dungeon feature or event, but is the only special event that changes position from turn to turn. The point is, the game clearly has a movement algorithm for this, and could well be applying it to things that aren’t visibly marked as well. But on the other hand, it’s more likely just applying a few special cases to encourage the illusion.

Wizardry IV: A Ziggurat that Violates Metaphor

The fourth level — level 7 — is another one that I remember, albeit not well enough to get through it quickly. The Temple of the Dreampainter, it calls itself, and it also tells us that it is a ziggurat. I actually had a hard time understanding what it meant by this, the first time through, because it’s another one of those bits where the content asks us to ignore what’s represented by the visuals and the world model, like the “castle” in Wiz3, but worse. The “ziggurat” consists of a mass of 2×2 rooms in a wedge formation. In other words, the map is a picture of a ziggurat viewed from the side.

To support this notion, you “fall off the ziggurat” if you’re ever outside the wedge and there’s no wall immediately to your south. I emphasize that the direction you fall is southward, not downward; the DUMAPIC spell is unambiguous. It took me a good long time to understand this, that the rationale for this peculiar southward gravitation is that this is a side-view level, simply because it doesn’t actually give us a side view. Wiz3 told us “No, seriously, this stretch of floor is a lake, no matter what it looks like”, and I was able to accept that pretty easily. But “the floor here is actually part of the sky” is a step too far for my liking. It’s easily my least favorite thing the game.

Wizardry IV: Memories

The third level of Wizardry IV — which is to say, level 8, because you start at level 10 and work your way towards the entrance — is the first one that I remember from my first pass at the game. Level 10 is too simple in design to be really memorable, just a series of nested rings with guardians between them. Level 9’s whole deal is that it gives you a winding corridor with a zillion tiny rooms off it, and the only trick is that yes, you really do have to check them all. But level 8 has a gimmick. A message by the stairs down announces it as “death by a thousand cuts”: it looks like a completely open space, but it’s really a minefield — essentially a maze where you have to figure out where the walls are by walking into them and taking damage. Although “walls” is really too strong — you can ignore some of them, right? If you’ve got healers with you, you can take a few mines. But you can’t ignore them completely. So it’s all a big exercise in map-making without relying on visible cues.

More importantly, though, level 8 introduces an element that I misremembered as occurring earlier. Just before the stairs up, there’s a message: “Have you forgotten something?”

This is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a game. You see that and you immediately start to wonder. Is there something I’ve neglected? Something I failed to realize I should have done in the early levels? Will I have to go back through the minefield? It feels like an accusation, but a maddeningly non-specific one, one that leaves you with no clue how to act on it.

Having been on this ride before, I know that the question “Have you forgotten something?” becomes a repeated motif, like a catchphrase for the game. It’s really directed more at Werdna than at the player. Nonetheless, it still brings a bit of a grue. It comes right when you’re congratulating yourself on your progress, having made it through a difficult challenge, but it isn’t really all that difficult a challenge, is it? Mapping the mines doesn’t take any special insight. It just asks you to be methodical, perhaps for longer than you’d like. This lulls you into a certain state of mind, and the question shocks you awake, shakes you out of your complacency, reminds you that there’s a bigger picture that you’ve been ignoring while your attention was on more immediate concerns. Yes, you have forgotten something. Immersion is forgetting. Time to remember.

One Last Thought on Legacy in Wizardry

In a previous post, I described the possibility of legacy admissions in Legacy of Llylgamyn: that if you want characters with all of the honor marks for successfully completing scenarios, the best way to do it would be to make new characters to do all the dangerous parts, then use them to chaperone the legacy characters through relatively-safe high-XP grinding, letting the descendants of those who did great deeds in the past reap the benefits of other people’s work.

Having now been through the ending in Wizardry III, I see it’s even better than that. You can get your legacy characters the mark for beating the game without ever sending them into the dungeon at all. When a party returns from the dungeon with the Orb of Earithin, they receive the victory mark, but you also get to select up to six other characters from the roster to mark too. Presumably this was intended to support the “one good party and one evil party” style of gameplay: if you used two parties to get the stuff you need to win the game, it seems a little unfair for only one of them to get the honors. But since the game lets you share the honors with anyone you want, even if they didn’t do anything, you have the option to be unfair in other ways.

Wizardry II does something similar: the endgame, which is more ritual than challenge, has to be done by one character entering the dungeon solo with a complete Knight of Diamonds outfit. When they emerge with the Staff of Gnilda, they get to bestow honors on companions who helped them — but there, the ones you pick get a different mark than the one who actually did the ritual. If you really want a character with every single mark, you’d have to complete Wiz2 twice, once to give that character the Knight of Diamonds mark and once to give them the helper mark. But you can still minimize the involvement of the character who’s getting the marks, and thus minimize risk to them. If your designated hero character can survive dungeon level 1, your worker characters can hand them all the pieces of the costume and send them off to do the ending.

You pretty much have to get your mark from Wizardry I honestly, though. The only way to do it there is to come out of the dungeon with the amulet, which you can only get by defeating Werdna, and which you don’t get to keep afterward. And sure, there are ways to do that with a character who hasn’t actually fought Werdna. They could die in the dungeon and get picked up and resurrected by a victorious party on their way out. But there’s really not much reason to do that, other than exploit for exploit’s sake.

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