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.

Wonderquest: Riddles

In addition to the new (access to) character abilities, Dreams has added one mechanic not seen in the base Master Orion levels: Riddles. Or codes, as the game calls them. There are little shield-like tokens that, when stepped on, bring up a text prompt, and usually some other text items nearby that give hints about what to type. Type in the right thing, and all the monsters in the room instantly die — and I have yet to see a riddle in a room where there’s any other way to kill monsters. Usually there’s a monster completely out of reach, which also means that it can’t reach you, and the only reason you have to kill it with a riddle is to open a room-clear or level-clear gate. But that’s a pattern deeply baked into both Wonderquest and DROD.

The whole notion of “token that kills everything in the room except you” had been brought up before, mind you. Master Orion had a handful of rooms with “Pandora’s Box”, which is the same thing without the riddle part. But that made it the basis for puzzles about reaching the box, typically fighting monsters on the way. You were using the same mechanics as the rest of the game, but the instant-win of it meant that instead of the typical in-room progression of clearing away opposition and making things easier as you go along, the room could just keep on making things harder and harder until your last desperate grab for the box. Riddle rooms, on the other other hand, generally don’t have anything going on other than the riddle. Which is probably a good thing! Imagine solving a difficult mechanical puzzle but then being unable to complete the room because the riddle at the end stumped you.

Nonetheless, the way that the riddles, in effect, temporarily replace the game with a different one is one of the reasons I dislike them. Another reason: The lack of flexibility. The prompt is looking for an exact string; if you use different spacing or punctuation, or type out a number in words when it’s expecting digits or vice versa, it’s rejected. And so, in contrast to the rest of the game, I’ve been cheating pretty freely on the riddles. The text is pretty easy to extract from the level files, it turns out — the characters are all just decremented by 1, which suffices to prevent people from reading it accidentally, but can be decoded by a very simple script.

I kind of see what the author was going for, though. The content of the riddles more often than not concerns the story. It asks questions about what you’ve seen in the story text throughout the game. So it’s an attempt at making that into more than just flavor text, and making it relevant to progress in the game. But it still winds up separated from the real gameplay. Instead of a division between game and story, we wind up with a division between game and (story plus riddles).

Wonderquest: Versatility

Wonderquest has nine playable characters. I’ve described eight of them already. The one I skipped over is Arthur, a teenage boy who, like Sophie, is a non-combatant. Instead of fighting monsters, he can drop decoys to distract them — said decoys taking the form of his “mighty shoes”, which is a little wacky, but the mechanic is solid. He also has the ability to run around on top of crates, although he needs to climb a tower to get on top of them.

Towers have turned out to be fairly versatile things. They extend the range of Nikolay and Cahill’s weapons, they let Rick put up ziplines, they protect you from explosions, they make terrain passible by characters who are otherwise limited, and they block Jax’s path, which isn’t useful to the player but is very useful to the author. It’s always good for a puzzle element to have multiple possible meanings like this. In Dreams, Cahill can construct new towers, given enough wood, and it isn’t always immediately obvious where they’re needed, precisely because they have multiple possible uses.

That’s kind of how the game uses characters, too, especially in Dreams, where the expansion of character special abilities has turned more of them into grab-bags of unrelated traits. Is Cahill included in a puzzle for his boomerang, or his forestwalking, or his tower-building? Even Jax, who seemed at first like the basic, no-frills character, has gained a special skill, consuming Food to dash instantly as far as he can in the direction he’s facing. There have been a few roach-horde puzzles with sundry character-change tiles scattered around, not because you need multiple different characters’ special skills to solve a puzzle as is usually the case, but just to let the player choose among different fighting styles.

Wonderquest: Orion’s End

It’s been a little while since my last Wonderquest update. This is partly (but only partly) because level 15 was something of a slog, with lots of puzzles based around grueling tactical trial-and-error rather than satisfying “Aha!” moments. And on top of that, it’s essentially two levels packed into one. Most levels have had some sort of finale, a single large-scale multi-room puzzle interposed between crossing the “level clear” gate (which opens when you’ve killed all the monsters) and the actual exit. Level 15 ends in a suite of twelve independent puzzles, giving each playable character a final bow, a much more satisfying ending than the level’s first half. The reward for each of the twelve is a “relic” that permanently erases one otherwise-impassible “cursed ground” tile. The level exit is guarded by only ten cursed grounds in series, so you have a little leeway, although a completist like myself will want all twelve relics to claim two optional “secrets”.

Relics are the one resource that stays with you between rooms (although not between levels), and they basically exist just for this endgame sequence. Previous levels had a single cursed ground you could clear just before the exit, providing a shortcut that let you go hunt for secrets without having to go through the finale a second time. DROD occasionally produces the same effect with a “room clear” gate, but using relics untethers the design from monster-slaying. And the level 15 ending suite does the same for puzzles in general, showing us how relics can give us difficult goals that don’t involve monsters at all. This is an idea I’d like to see explored more. I bet there are DROD holds based on it, although Wonderquest has more mechanics suited to supporting it.

One thing that I found peculiar as I was finishing up the “Master Orion” quest: A lot of the characters have special abilities listed that they never have an opportunity to exercise. In particular, several have a “high morale” bonus that improves their weapon when the party’s resources reach a certain threshold, which you could never reach. What’s this stuff for? By now, I’ve played enough of the followup quest, “Dreams”, to know the answer. It seems to be a solution to a design problem: By the end of “Master Orion”, the author has given us all the playable characters he intends us to have. But he still wants to keep giving us new abilities over the course of “Dreams”, because that’s how he designs puzzles.

Wonderquest: Enter Cahill

Level 15 — the final one! (Until I try Dreams, anyway.) I still don’t know what “Master Orion” refers to. Maybe it’s a person, or maybe Orion is a collective name of the puzzles, which we’re expected to master. There’s certainly an emphasis on mastery at this point, anyway, as the puzzles and the secrets reach a fevered pitch of complexity. Every level, it seems, consists of a core 5×5 area with optional secret rooms outside its periphery. Here on level 15, there are nearly as many secret rooms as core — albeit a lot of that is a big multi-room maze, like the infamous level 13 in King Dugan’s Dungeon. At least Wonderquest is kind enough to keep its big maze optional.

The star of this level is the newly-acquired character, Cahill the Australian Aborigine. We’ve seen what this game does with a female character, so how does it handle a Black one? The answer is that it doesn’t even try. Cahill doesn’t even get an intro dialogue like all the other characters. Possibly an oversight on the creator’s part, or maybe he was tired of writing intro dialogues by the time he got to this level. Regardless, Cahill is more a collection of mechanics than a character. He’s the only character who can move through forest, which I’ve found confusing at times, as the game has taught the player pretty well by this point that forest equals wall. Just like when Chen swims through water, he loses access to his weapon when forestwalking. This is a pretty big limitation, because his weapon is his superpower. It’s a boomerang, although its capabilities are more that of a batarang, not just hitting enemies on both the way out and the way back, but striking orbs and setting off bombs. And explosions make it go out farther before returning, so there are puzzles all about setting up complicated combo moves. So whatever his shortcomings as a character (in a story that hasn’t been all that good with characters generally), he’s a humdinger of a puzzle element.

Wonderquest: Monster Inventory

I still don’t have any idea why Wonderquest‘s main hold is titled “Master Orion”, but level 14 surprised me by giving a possible explanation for the title “Wonderquest”: in a sequence of texts, the party finds a newly-hatched floating eye monster and adopts it as a pet, naming it Steve Wonder due to its severe myopia. You might think that a creature made entirely of eye should be able to see really well, but in fact all the Eyes in this game have a kind of tunnel vision, remaining dormant until you enter their direct line of sight. If they’re facing diagonally, you can skip right through their line of sight by exploiting the grid. In other words, they’re exactly like the Evil Eyes in DROD.

Let’s take that as a cue to compare the Wonderquest monster roster with that of DROD more fully. Roaches are simply roaches, although the roach queen spawn cycle is 24 turns to match the 24-hour clock, instead of the DROD-standard 30. Mimics are present, although they’re called Elementals, and come in two flavors: fire elementals that copy your movements directly and water elementals that do the exact reverse. There are puzzles where you use a fire-water pair to execute something symmetric, like simultaneously hitting orbs in opposite corners, and there are puzzles that could have perfectly well given you control of a fire elemental but use a water elemental just to make things slightly more difficult. (In one case, it actually gives you a choice, framing it as the easy way vs the hard way and asking “What kind of person are you?” — which was enough to goad me into picking the hard way, even though it’s not really significantly harder in practice.

There’s a sort of creature called a “Fluffy” that’s basically like DROD‘s Wubbas (indestructible and non-deadly but in your way a lot), except willing to slide along obstacles laterally. There’s also an aggressive variant called a “Mad Fluffy”, which, strangely enough, is equivalent to DROD Goblins (avoids your weapon and tries to circle around behind you). This respeciation puzzled me until I found that Fluffies can be turned into Mad Fluffies by holding a lit torch on them for a number of turns. I haven’t yet seen a puzzle where this is something you’d want to do, but it can be done.

More interestingly, this idea of transforming monsters by affecting their mood is also applied to snakes. Snakes have three modes. In their neutral mode, they’re basically equivalent to DROD Serpents, except that they can go over water, creating a nice sea-serpent effect when you’re out on your boat. Get them angry by luring them into explosions, and they turn red, become smarter in their movement, and can go over lava and destroy force arrows. Lure them over food, and they become happy and green, and attempt to imitate your movements when possible. This last seems to be particularly useful in puzzle design, giving us something that’s like a mimic but more awkward, that can’t move diagonally and has to be kept out of the way of its own tail. The thing is, although all three types of snake are used a lot on the level that introduces them (level 13), the transformation capability is hardly used at all. Usually they spend an entire puzzle in one mood.

There are many DROD monsters that have no Wonderquest equivalent so far: Wraithwings, Living Tar, Stone Giants. The only Wonderquest monster without a DROD equivalent is the Butterfly, which moves like a chess knight, and is mainly used to spice up roach hordes a little.

Wonderquest: General Observations

I’ve taken levels 11, 12, and most of 13 in a burst. Apparently there are fifteen levels in the main campaign (or “hold”, to use DROD terminology), “Master Orion”. A second hold titled “Dreams” is included in the package, and I’ll probably head straight on to that when I’m done, because I’ve clearly got a hunger for this stuff.

As much as I’ve been thinking of this game an inferior DROD imitation — or, to be more charitable, DROD without nearly twenty years of development behind it — there are things it does really well. The level design really takes advantage of large-scale structures that span multiple rooms, such as rivers or volcanic craters or just secondary pathways that snake and spiral through the whole map. Such secondary paths are one way it reuses individual rooms in different ways, but it also and more satisfyingly takes advantage of the different movement limitations of the different characters for the same purpose, changing what a given area means. One nice trick I’ve seen it pull multiple times: a secret passage leads to a linear sequence of rooms that you can’t solve on the way in. You just have to get through them to the innermost chamber, then fight your way back out through challenges you’ve already seen. It’s a nice way to create anticipation.

It must be said that many of the puzzles aren’t elegant — many are based around managing chaos on a turn-by-turn basis. And I use the word “chaos” in its mathematical sense here, of effects being entirely out of proportion to causes. (Appropriately, one of the chief sources of chaos is butterflies.) When one step can mean the difference between victory and defeat, and the room state is complex enough that it’s unreasonable to work out the consequences of your actions in advance, you’re not reasoning your way to a solution. Those puzzles are basically trial and error, with copious use of the undo button. And in contrast to most similar puzzle games these days (including later versions of DROD), you only get one turn of undo. This has been a serious barrier to enjoying the game fully. There are checkpoints, but not nearly enough of them. Sometimes you’ll get a room involving multiple distinct stages, essentially mini-puzzles that have to be solved in sequence, and a mistake in the later stages forces you to restart the room and go through the motions of the earlier stages over and over again.

But when the game works, it works really well. There are some really good “Aha!” moments where you suddenly understand how a room works.

Wonderquest: Sophie

I noted before that, although the cast of Wonderquest includes a variety of nations and walks of life, every character seemed to be male. Well, that changes on level 10, and maybe it would have been better if it hadn’t. The new playable character there is Sophie, an environmental activist from France, although her function in the intra-party banter is strictly that of token girl.

She comes with some interesting new abilities: she can ignore force arrows, and even to a limited extent reorient them. The in-game dialogue has her teasing the rest of the party about it, like “Silly boys, you see an arrow painted on the ground and you feel compelled to obey it” — linking the ability to gender when it could have been made mainly about her role as activist, refusing to bow to authority. Still, it makes for some nice puzzles. We’re at a point where there are enough characters in the party to make satisfying puzzles out of changing repeatedly, so there’s repeated pattern of “Become Sophie, go through some force arrows to flip a switch or whatever, turn back and take advantage of it”.

Perhaps to compensate for this ability, she has a rather severe limitation: she can’t fight. Her “weapon” is a firebrand, which can keep monsters at a distance (if you find a source of fire to light it), but doesn’t let her kill. Again, this could be seen as appropriate for an environmentalist, although she’ll gladly kill indirectly by taking advantage of environmental hazards. But that’s not what it suggests when you juxtapose it with her other special ability, which is screaming. Given water (a limited resource, even though there are huge lakes all over the place), she can scream to temporarily send monsters scurrying away. It all reminds me of certain Anita Sarkeesian videos. And the thing of it is, the designer clearly put some degree of thought into giving the character her own strengths, competencies that the male characters lack and a bio that could at least provide the basis for greater characterization — but then also makes her scream at things that everyone else can fight.

Wonderquest: The Millionaire’s Collection

And now I’m caught up to and slightly past where I left off last time. Level 9 introduces a new playable character: Rick Gates, an axe-wielding English telecommunications millionaire. His primary special ability is that he can turn 180 degrees instantly. I suppose this is a useful skill in the tech world, but on the face of it, it seems like a downgrade from Chen, who’s already facing both directions all the time. I have seen one or two situations where you actually want to leave the space behind you free, but it’s unusual, especially in the sorts of roach-horde-heavy puzzles this level throws at you.

Rick’s secondary ability, the first secondary ability to be seen, is that he can string ziplines between towers to create an above-ground version of DROD‘s tunnels: instant travel between separated points, breaking the plane’s natural connectivity and potentially making for confusing navigation. The level’s finale involves ziplining all around little islands throughout the rooms of the level, recontextualizing their content like it’s Myst 3.

Before he can connect a pair of towers, though, he has to gather enough rope. This is the game’s first use of the resource system that’s been sitting in the bottom of the UI all this time displaying a bunch of zeroes. I was wondering how this would work into the game as a whole. Would the game track resources from room to room, turning it into a big optimization puzzle like DROD RPG? No, it turns out that they’re specific to rooms. If you pick up a pile of rope and then leave the room, it all just goes away, or rather, returns to its initial location as the room resets.

The UI makes me think of the timer in DROD. There, counting turns isn’t relevant until you start encountering roach queens some ways into the game, and so in rooms without timed events, the timer isn’t displayed. (Indeed, it goes away when the last timed element in the room is eliminated.) Addlemoth takes a similar approach. But here, we get the resource counts all the time, even when it serves no purpose. Or does it? Really, it serves the purpose of letting the first-time player know that limited resources are going to be a thing. The early parts of the game are such a throwback to King Dugan’s Dungeon, covering the basics of roach and orb mechanics, that a promise of something novel later on is kind of important to keep the experienced player interested. But that’s a problem probably better solved by starting off with the novel stuff.

Wonderquest: Crumblies

It’s as true in Wonderquest as anywhere else: On your second or third pass through a portion of a game, you might as well go for 100% completion. In level 8, I was slowed down not just because the puzzles are getting harder, but because I spent so much time looking for the last of the level’s secrets.

“Secrets” in this game are collectibles in the form of little trophy icons. I don’t yet know if there’s any in-game reward for collecting them aside from the mere satisfaction of doing so, but the map screen tells you how many there are on each level (usually three or four) and how many you’ve found in total (out of a maximum of 60). Some are in plain sight but hard to reach. Some are invisible until you get very close, but these are always clued in some way. (The clue can be as subtle as “There’s no obvious reason for that alcove over there to exist”, though.) And some are in secret rooms, hidden behind crumbly walls.

Or rather, in most cases, crumbly forest tiles. Walls exist as a distinct tile type, but forest is much more common. Scale in this game is wildly inconsistent, by the way. A forest and a cockroach occupy the same amount of space. Walking the length of your sword takes an hour of game time, and so does turning 45 degrees. And that’s fine. It doesn’t break the sense of realism because nothing in this game ever produced that expectation.

Crumbly forest tiles look very similar to regular ones, but are slightly discolored — just enough for it to be noticeable if you’re looking for it, although it’s easier to see in large patches. Making secret passages just barely visible like this is a venerable tradition, going back to at least Ultima IV, where normal walls and secret doors differed by one pixel. This was noticeable because pixels were much larger in those days. And of course DROD, Wonderquest‘s immediate forebear, also had hard-to-spot crumbly walls, although it also had a much easier-to-spot version, for puzzles that use crumbly walls for something other than hiding the path to a secret, and I think the easier-to-see version was used preferentially anyway as the series came to rely less on hiding information.

Now, level 8 of Wonderquest does something novel with the idea of crumbly walls: it starts making other things crumbly. Like crumbly force arrows, or even a crumbly character-change token. At first I thought it wasn’t playing fair, just throwing on behaviors that couldn’t be discerned from the appearance of the tiles, but on looking closely, I could see a spray of grayish pixels overlaid on these objects, like a crumbliness aura. And in fact if you look more closely with an image editor, the pixels are not just gray but gray-green. It seems that this is what causes the “discolored” appearance in its more usual context, the forest tiles. So “crumbly walls” aren’t really a distinct thing in this game. There’s just walls and crumbliness existing in the same place.

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