Wizardry IV: Going Up Levels

Wizardry IV has no experience points.

The portion of the character details UI where XP is normally displayed instead gives the number of keystrokes you have left to finish the game. This is a little alarming, but the limit is large.

What it has instead of XP is exploration. At fixed points in every level of the dungeon, there are pentagrams laid out on the floor. These are your base camps, like a Dark Souls campfire. Standing on a pentagram replenishes your health and spell slots, allows you to summon a fresh set of monsters, and, once per dungeon level, empowers Werdna, permanently granting him more hit points and access to higher-level spells. It’s not the same leveling process as in the previous games. There’s no randomness, no gap levels where you don’t learn spells, no possibility of stats going down. All your stats go up in lockstep, every time you level up. You start in the depths of dungeon level 10 with 8 in every stat; by the time you reach the surface, you’ll have straight 18s.

Thus, there is no grinding. The only benefit you get from killing stuff is that it’s dead now — something that I think even applies to the random encounters with wandering adventurers, who, being individually named, are finite in number. What I’ve said multiple times about how the ideal balance in CRPGs syncs leveling up with exploration? Wizardry IV manages that in the most trivial way, by making you literally explore to find opportunities to level up.

Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna

Wizardry IV is the one remaining episode of the series that I’ve played before, and played through to completion, back when I was in college, a few years after its 1987 release. I had skipped over II and III because the premise of IV felt more interesting: it’s the role-reversal episode, putting the player in the role of Werdna, the evil wizard from the first game. Unable to truly kill him, Trebor had his body thrown into a crypt in the lower reaches of a dungeon patrolled by adventurers. When he awakens, weakened from his death, he calls upon his monster allies to help him escape and reclaim the amulet that he and Trebor have been squabbling over all this time.

I had been undecided about whether to call Werdna “evil” above — as far as I can tell, he’s never actually called that in Wizardry I, and the intro text in the Wiz1 manual only describes him as “fanatical”. Really, the only thing suggesting that he’s evil in that game is that he’s hanging out with a bunch of vampires when you kick in the door to his sanctum, and I can imagine good reasons for that. And sure, he stole this amulet from Trebor, but remember that Trebor is called “the Mad Overlord” — not necessarily someone you’d trust with a powerful magical artifact. Anyway, Wizardry IV settles the question right off the bat: the very first sentence is “You are Werdna, the evil wizard.” The intro text in the manual, which is much longer and much better-written than that of the previous episodes, reinforces this by talking about your plans for world domination once you’ve got the amulet back. But it also solidifies our doubts about Trebor, and establishes that he doesn’t have much more claim to the amulet than you do: Trebor and Werdna learned how to get it at more or less the same time, and Trebor beat Werdna to the punch by mere hours.

The viewpoint of the writing carries over into the game, as well: for the first time, we’re getting narration of internal thoughts, like “With a feeling of triumph, you exclaim ‘Free at last!'”, rather than just physical descriptions of the environment. It’s a significant change to the feel of the thing. This game is unlike the other Wizardries up to this point, and not in just the obvious ways.

In fact, according to some of the online resources I’ve looked at while blogging the series, it isn’t even really part of the same series. It’s claimed that the initial Wizardry continuity, the “Llylgamyn saga”, consists of Wizardries 1, 2, 3, and 5, but not 4. This seems strange to me — 4 is a lot more closely connected to 1 than 2 and 3 are. It’s hard to imagine a hard criterion for excluding 4 from the series that doesn’t also exclude 1, or a criterion for including 1 that doesn’t apply to 4 as well. Perhaps it’s because it’s the one episode that wasn’t released in Japan — a lot of the jokes and some of the puzzles rely on untranslatable wordplay and pop culture references. 1Update: On looking into it further, it looks like what they really mean is that 4 has been left out of various anthology releases for consoles. Which means the translatability issues are probably the main underlying reason. Or perhaps it’s just down to character portability — you can’t import characters into Wiz4, because the only character you can play is Werdna. It could have been fun to import characters so you could encounter them as enemies, though.

That’s one of the notable things about the game, in contrast to the previous episodes: All the enemies are individuals, with unique names, forming a roster similar to the player character roster elsewhere. Your own minions, meanwhile, are nameless, just as they’ve always been. In general, the game is impressively dedicated to turning all the asymmetries of the system backwards, rather than just reskinning it all. Previously, monsters approached you in up to four homogeneous groups; here, you can summon up to three groups of monsters at a time, with Werdna himself occupying the fourth slot. Up to six individual adventurers attack you at a time, and you can only do hand-to-hand attacks against the first three. It even displays the exact same combat UI as the previous games, with the monsters on top and the adventuring party on the bottom, and you have to get used to the idea that the top is your guys now.

Notably, though, this design means you don’t control what your monsters do in battle. They just pick at random from their action set, like monsters have always done. The way you exercise control is by choosing which monsters to summon in the first place. The most essential puzzle in the game is just “How do I make an effective team out of the monster types available to me?” The monsters are all things that appeared in the first three games, and at the beginning of the game, when you don’t have access to the really powerful ones yet, they’re all things you’re used to seeing slaughtered in droves.

1 Update: On looking into it further, it looks like what they really mean is that 4 has been left out of various anthology releases for consoles. Which means the translatability issues are probably the main underlying reason.

Wizardry III: Wrapping Up to the Extent Possible

When I took up the frightening task of exploring the sixth and final level, with its new and unfamiliar monsters like berzerkers and cyclopes 1The game doesn’t seem to ever make a group of more than one cyclops, which is reasonable for a giant, but more importantly means they didn’t have to decide how to pluralize the word., I was relieved to find that all my preparations had put me in a good position for it. I was ready. Even the dragon L’kbreth, guardian of the Orb of Earithin, acknowledged my worthiness when I met her surprisingly early in my explorations.

The one thing I didn’t have that I was reluctant to go into the endgame without was a character who could cast TILTOWAIT, the ultimate direct-damage spell — something mages can pick up early as experience level 13, but here I had a level 15 mage, my highest-level character, and they still hadn’t managed it. But they finally, belatedly got it on reaching level 16 while exploring the maze.

The maze on level 6 strikes me as being patterned on something like a fruit tree: a small but straight trunk leads to L’kbreth, and after that it goes into a tangle of branches, dotted with isolated 3×3 sections accessible only through extra-secret doors. One of these apples contains the Orb. A couple of others have decoys, but you can tell the one with the real orb because it starts with an especially tough fixed encounter against an Arch Demon and some Fiends. This was the only place I needed to use TILTOWAIT, and even there, I held off for a couple of rounds out of a sense that I had been doing so well without it that it would be a shame to start now. I could only cast it so many times, so maybe I should save it for a confrontation that’s more climactic? But this was in fact the final boss fight. It just didn’t feel climactic because it was so incidental. In the previous two games, when I fought the final boss, I had gone into the dungeon with the specific purpose of seeking them out and defeating them. I didn’t even know the Arch Demon was there.

That’s because the real final boss is the maze itself. It’s a big contrast to Wizardry I, which basically led you by the nose, not letting you get lost. Here in Wizardry III, you’re expected to map the place out (without using DUMAPIC!) enough to notice the voids. And since the desire to make maps was the whole impetus for this month-long Wizardry binge, that suited me fine.

One last peculiar thing: Just as the game ends without a satisfyingly climactic boss fight, so too does it end without a satisfying resolution to its premise. Retrieving the Orb doesn’t end the cataclysms. It just lets the sages in Llylgamyn gather more information about them. Will we see this resolved on-screen, or will it just happen between episodes? Well, apparently we’ve got one more direct sequel. We’ll find out when we get to Wizardry V.

(Not Wizardry IV? Oh, that’s not a sequel to Wizardry III. It’s a sequel to Wizardry I. I’ll talk more about it in my next post.)

1 The game doesn’t seem to ever make a group of more than one cyclops, which is reasonable for a giant, but more importantly means they didn’t have to decide how to pluralize the word.

Wizardry III: A Little Fungicide

I’ve figured out how to deal with the Priests of Fung, how to get through their area without loss of life or speculative teleporting (which is both risky and cheaty). It has to do with something that I really thought was a bug.

See, there’s something that I had been thinking of as “anti-magic fields” — areas where you can’t cast spells 1Except for CALFO, the spell for detecting traps on chests, which is cast from the “What do you want to do with this chest?” menu instead of the interfaces you normally spells from. I’m assuming that this really is a bug., but neither can enemies. It takes away your greatest weapon, reducing you to winning fights with your actual fighters, but also removes the biggest dangers. Level 5 has such a field on an area of magical darkness — the only darkness field I’ve seen in Wizardry III. It’s a combination that makes it very difficult to navigate, as you can’t see where you’re going and you can’t cast DUMAPIC to check your location. You can’t just back out the way you came, because the door into the area is one-way. You can’t even teleport out. The occasional pit trap adds some urgency to the situation. An “ethereal taxi” service has set up shop in several points in the darkness to take advantage of your desperation, offering to whisk you back to town for an exorbitant fee. But it is possible to make it back to the rest of the dungeon, if you keep track of your movements carefully.

Now, here’s the apparent bug: The effects of the anti-magic field don’t turn off when you leave the anti-magic field. (I noticed a spot like this in Knight of Diamonds as well. Possibly it applies to all anti-magic fields.) Once you’ve been in it, you can’t cast spells until you leave the level. But neither can anything else. Remember how the big threat posed by the Priests of Fung was instant-death spells? You can just turn those off.

In fact, it’s even better than that. Priests of Fung, like most enemy spellcasters, always cast spells unless they can’t (either because they’ve run out, or because they’re in a surprise round). Even when they weren’t instant-killing my guys, they were doing tons of damage with reverse healing spells like BADIALMA. Do a little detour through the anti-magic field, and basically all their attacks fizzle. It turns them from the most dangerous things I’ve encountered to the most helpless.

(And on top of that, after doing a few rounds through Fungland, I noticed that the anti-magic field actually begins just outside of the darkness room, letting me streamline the process and not lose my light spell by skipping the darkness. Maybe the darkness and the anti-magic don’t actually overlap at all.)

So, I’ve mapped out all of level 5 now. Do I go on to level 6? Not quite yet: these Priests of Fung provide the most efficient and risk-free grinding yet, and I’m still getting really good equipment drops from them. Once I do a pass without permanently improving someone’s armor class, I’ll consider it.

Is the behavior of anti-magic fields in fact unintentional? I’ve already documented some apparent mistakes that got preserved in this edition, so it’s far from implausible. But I’d like to think it’s an intentional puzzle. The fact that it puts the episode’s first anti-magic field right on the one level where it’s really useful makes it seem like it’s not coincidence. And for my money, this sort of thing is Wizardry at its best: making situational puzzles out of previously-established game mechanics.

1 Except for CALFO, the spell for detecting traps on chests, which is cast from the “What do you want to do with this chest?” menu instead of the interfaces you normally spells from. I’m assuming that this really is a bug.

Wizardry III: Monster Encounter Details

Monster encounters in Wizardry are built from templates. Each has anywhere from one to four groups of monsters, each group consisting of a single monster type in a quantity anywhere from 1 to 9. Both the number of groups and the maximum monsters per group increase as you get further into the dungeon, from a maximum of 2 groups of 5 on level 1 to a maximum of 4 groups of 9 on level 5 and beyond.

Moreover, there seems to be a fixed set of combinations. For example, on level 4 (where I’m still grinding), one of the combinations is one group of Two-Headed Snakes (dangerous creatures, venomous and hard to kill) accompanied by up to three groups of Anacondas (weaksauce). That’s a fairly common pattern: a bunch of underlings and a boss. Ninjas and Master Ninjas. Vultures and Rocs. Crusaders and Crusader Lords (there to fight the Garians?). Another pattern: Completely homogenous mobs, just massive swarms of of Strangler Vines or Doom Beetles. Sometimes you’ll encounter a monster alone like this on one level, and together with its boss version farther along.

The most interesting monster pattern is what I think of as the Variety Pack: three or four types commonly seen in each others’ company, like the Necromancers/Dwarf Fighters/Men at Arms combo frequently seen on level 4, or the Faerie/Pixie/Leprechauns of level 5. Some of these combos approximate a well-balanced party, some are more specialized — but even the balanced ones become specialized when some of their components are missing, as happens at random.

Some monsters appear in multiple patterns: Dwarf Fighters can be found leading three groups of Men at Arms, and they can be found backing up a bunch of Necromancers in a variety pack. Other monsters are only seen in very specific groupings, without even any variation in numbers. On level 5, you’ll sometimes encounter a Seraph and a Nocorn. Always just the two of them, no one else, and always together. It makes me wonder what their story is, in a way I don’t experience with the more fully random encounters.

Wizardry vs Ultima

Wizardry and Ultima were the two big names of early CRPGs. I haven’t hit all of Wizardry yet, but I’ve already played through the entire Ultima series, including some of its offshoots like Ultima Underworld, Runes of Virtue, Martian Dreams and Savage Empire. (There’s one Wizardry offshoot on the Stack; we’ll get to it in time.) I’ve noted before that the two series became emblematic of two different presentations of the gameworld: Wizardry-style games were ones with a grid-based first-person view, like The Bard’s Tale or Pool of Radiance, while Ultima-style ones were third-person 2D on a grid map, like Final Fantasy or The Magic Candle. In fact, Ultima itself used both presentations, third-person overland and first-person in the dungeons, but dungeons were never the emphasis of the series, and nowhere near as sophisticated as the ones in Wizardry. By Ultima III, they were dropping back to a third-person tile grid for combat, and by Ultima VI, they abandoned the first-person view entirely.

But now that I’m spending an extended amount of time in the Wizardry series, I’m thinking that the real contrast is one of tone. It’s sort of a Wonderland vs Oz vibe, with Wizardry as Wonderland: the darker and more nightmarish of the pair, a world without the comfort of consistent internal logic. As in the Oz stories, nothing permanently bad ever happens to the heroes in an Ultima game; Wizardry is not only eager to kill your guys, it drags the process out by dangling the possibility of resurrection and then frequently snatching it away. (It’s worth noting here that the Virtues system established in Ultima IV and used in most subsequent games in the series was, by its author’s account, partially inspired by The Wizard of Oz.)

Moreover, the Ultima games put a lot of emphasis on providing an entire world for you to interact with, with cheery ren-faire characters and jobs you can do for pocket change and side-quests and sub-plots. And sure, Ultima I‘s world-building was kind of sketchy, but nowhere near as sketchy as in any of the Wizardry games I’ve played. Wizardry doesn’t have a world, it has a dungeon. The entire world outside the dungeon is reduced to a smallish set of menus containing nothing that isn’t directly related to getting back to work in the dungeon.

And “work” is really the key word there. It reminds me of nothing so much as the most dismal view of life, where you live to work rather than work to live. Past a certain point, you don’t even do it for the money — I’ve accumulated gold pieces in the millions, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing to spend it on. Your ostensible motivations, restoring the town’s defenses in Wizardry II and stopping disasters in Wizardry III, are blatantly tacked-on in a way that makes them feel like lies, pretexts to keep you working. The ultimate goal in Wizardry I is canonically meaningless. But when you make it out of the dungeon alive, what do you do? You just go right back in again, because that’s all there is.

Wizardry III: Back to the Grindstone

After the ruminations in my last post, I’ve decided to drop back to the grinding spot on dungeon level 4 for the time being. I had given up on it before as actually having a too-high risk-to-reward ratio, something level 5 fixed by offering greater rewards: more XP, better loot. But now that my characters have more hit points and better armor, the risk on level 4 has dropped considerably. And with the ability to summon as many random encounters as I want, it’s the next best thing to Murphy’s Ghost — the main downside being that I do still have to think about tactics somewhat.

I suppose it’s a fairly common pattern in CRPGs: the One Spot Especially Suited to Grinding. whether by accident or design, like Final Fantasy VI‘s “dinosaur forest”. But usually the grinding spot is more optional, something you only need to find if you’re trying to max out your power and get achievements or something, not just finish the main story. Here in Wizardry III, it seems essential. I could still be wrong about that, though. Maybe the Fung temple is more like the optional extra-hard miniboss and my fear of level 6 is unjustified. But I don’t intend to find out until I’ve leveled up some more.

So basically it’s going to be a while before anything interesting happens again. I’ve come to understand that this is a long-haul game, and not ideally suited to binge playing or serial blogging. But I’m willing to regard coming up with something new to say about it every day as a sort of special challenge.

Wizardry III: Difficulty

Wizardry III is a difficult game — easily the most difficult Wizardry I’ve played, and I’ve played Wizardry IV, the one that has a reputation for extreme difficulty. But that’s a whole different thing. Wizardry IV‘s difficulty is mainly in its puzzles, some of which require specialized knowledge, like the Kabbalah or Monty Python references. And while that sort of riddlery might stop someone cold, I found the game had been written from the same sort of geek culture that I myself was immersed in.

I’ve encountered this mismatch of difficulty assessment elsewhere. Spellbreaker is supposed to be Infocom’s hardest adventure, but I’ve never understood why — all it really takes is an “I wonder what happens if I do this?” mindset and some slight knowledge of classic math puzzles. The coin-op game Sinistar has a reputation for being unusually hard, but I always could last about as long in it as in other games of its type — although in this case I suspect it more signifies that I’m not very good at space shooters in general, so it’s not so much “For me, Sinistar is as easy as these other games” as “For me, these other games are as hard as Sinistar“.

Anyway, the thing that makes Wizardry III particularly difficult isn’t the puzzles, but that it demands patience. Wizardry I let you power-level at the Murphy’s Ghost room, and Wizardry II let you import your overpowered characters from Wizardry I, but if there’s any option like that in Wizardry III, I haven’t found it. You have to level up the slow and risky way. Sure, you get some ability to trade that off, choosing where to grind to make it less slow but more risky, or vice versa. But that means that when things get too slow for your liking, there’s a temptation to take on more risk than you can handle.

Wizardry: Spell Critique

The series is called Wizardry for good reason: magic is what wins battles, and learning how to use your magical resources effectively is essential to progress. Knowing when to use a single high-level damage spell to wipe out an entire encounter and when it’s more urgent to use multiple low-level disabling spells to increase the odds that the enemy doesn’t get any attacks off. This is how I’ve been steadily becoming more effective as I grind my way through dungeon level 5, even as experience level increases become rarer.

And yet, i’ve always found the magic system to be something of a disappointment. There’s just so much redundancy! It inflates the spell list without giving us spells that are meaningfully different. Of the 21 mage spells, fully a third are direct-damage spells at various strengths, and another three are spells that either kill their targets outright or do nothing to them. (Other CRPGs have taught us to expect that instant-death spells of this sort basically never work, but they’re actually pretty effective here.) That’s nearly half the spell list devoted to just hurting and killing stuff. Priests get 29 spells, including 6 that heal or resurrect, and 8 that do the opposite, hurting or killing outright — again, nearly half the spell list, and you almost never use the offensive ones, because you don’t want to waste spell slots on doing something a mage can do better when you could be saving them for healing.

Mages, too, get some useless spells. There are two mage spells that just improve the caster’s armor class, which is generally pointless on a mage, because you don’t put your mages in melee range, and even if they wind up in the front row because the fighters have been killed or disabled, they won’t improve the mage’s AC enough to make much of a difference. I could imagine it being used by a front-row caster, a samurai or a mage-to-fighter convert, but they’re usually better off killing stuff.

A few spells simply cost too much to be worthwhile, including two high-level mage spells that ask the gods for a random boon at the cost of an entire experience level. Another, LOKTOFEIT, teleports you back to town at the considerable cost of all your stuff and most of your gold. This could have solved some problems for me earlier, if any of my priests had learned it; as it is, by the time I had it, I also had a mage who could teleport for free.

And that’s another pattern: spells that become obsolete. Once you have LOMILWA (permanent light), you never use MILWA (temporary light). HALITO, the weakest damage spell, fades into insignificance quickly. I don’t think I’ve ever used KALKI (improve party’s AC by 1) at all — at low levels, you need to save your level-1 spell slots for healing, and by the time you have better healing spells, you also have MATU (improve party’s AC by 2).

D&D has the idea of casting spells at a higher level to make them more effective in some way, adding power or targets or both. It didn’t have this when Wizardry was made, but it did have the notion of spells that simply became more powerful as the caster gains experience levels. If Wizardry had either of these things, I think we could pare down the spell lists to this:

Mage spells:

  1. Direct damage (possibly split into Fire, Cold, and Neither for monster vulnerabilities)
  2. Instant kill
  3. Sleep
  4. Improve party’s AC
  5. Worsen enemy’s AC
  6. Reveal party’s location
  7. Teleport

Priest spells:

  1. Heal
  2. Resurrect
  3. Direct damage
  4. Cure status conditions
  5. Sleep
  6. Silence enemy casters
  7. Improve party’s AC
  8. Light
  9. Identify trap
  10. Identify monsters

That’s actually more diverse than I was expecting. I guess it’s easy to get an impression that the few spells you cast a lot dominate the spell lists more than they do. But it still doesn’t have a lot of utility spells, or a lot of genuinely different effects in combat.

One absence I find particularly notable: Although there are spells to do damage to an entire group, or even to all groups in an encounter, and although these spells can be cast by enemies on the entire party, there are no corresponding group heal spells.

Wizardry III: Fung Yeah!

I’ve mapped out most of level 5, and even acquired a Crystal of Good to go with my Crystal of Evil, but there are still parts of the level that I’m clearly not ready to tackle yet. One enclosed mazy region has been claimed by priests of Fung the Irascible, who stop and harass you every two steps or so. They’ve got instant-death spells — sure, they fail most of the time, but when they don’t, the result is instant death. So I’ve been mostly leaving them the Fung alone. Nonetheless, I managed to get a party stuck inside their turf by teleportation — not a fixed teleporter with a planned destination like before, but one of the random teleporter traps you sometimes find on chests.

Seriously, those teleporters are the scariest traps in the game. With high-level characters, you barely notice the effects of most traps. I spent a while adventuring without a thief recently, and couldn’t disarm traps at all, and my basic approach to most was like “Oh, an exploding box? That’s fine, my guys have good armor. Poison needle? I can cure poison a bunch of times. Mage Blaster? It’ll turn my mage to stone if I open it? Sure, he can take it.” Teleporter traps, though? I left those alone, when I successfully identified them. Which is something even the best thief possible only does 95% of the time. Hence the predicament I was describing.

I applied the same tactics as last time, leaving the teleported party suspended in the dungeon while I brought in a different party to explore the unexplored and figure out how to get them out of there. The big problem was that even a fact-gathering mission would have to go through multiple Fung encounters. So I spent a good long time leveling up, and came to the conclusion that there was in fact a fairly short route from the party’s current location to the exit, but that they’d probably all die along the way. But at least I could make them die in a more convenient place, one where I’d only get Funged one or two times on the way to collect the corpses. And as chance would have it, that didn’t even come to pass: the very first encounter after reactivating them had another chest with a teleporter trap, carrying them out of danger as easily as they were carried in.

The main effect of this misadventure, then, is that I spent a lot of time leveling up in preparation for Mission: Fung. I have two level-13 characters now! That’s a big watershed in this game: level 13 is when you get access to the highest spell level. In particular, I now have a mage who can teleport, which should help further exploration enormously.

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