Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land


    Over the years, PC and console RPGs may have taken vastly different directions in terms of their focus, style, and gameplay, but they do share common roots. The earliest PC RPGs had a sizable following in Japan, and their influence can be seen in Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests of the day. The Wizardry series in particular has always enjoyed a cult status there, inspiring not only ports of the Western games, but original takes on the series for everything from the Game Boy to the PlayStation 2. The latest of these, Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, is also the first Japanese-made Wizardry to find its way to US shores. While the series has grown and evolved over eight installments in the West, Tale of the Forsaken Land sticks close to the dungeon hacking days of the franchise and, as a result, shares its both good and bad points.

    Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land is a dungeon crawl in its purest state: one town, one dungeon. The nation of Duhan is thrown into chaos when a huge flash of light descends from the heavens, wreaking destruction on the land below. In addition to the thousands dead, the disaster opens up a gigantic labyrinth beneath the castle. With the skies darkened by the aftermath, and the population decimated, adventurers begin to venture into the underworld in an attempt to get to the literal bottom of the problem.

The forsaken land

    Players take on the role of one of these adventures through an old school character creation process, complete with stat allocation. Gamers can choose from one of five races, each offering their traditional advantages and disadvantages in the expected Tolkeinesque tradition: elves are superior magic users, but physically weak; hobbits are perfectly suited to be thieves; humans have average stats across the board; and so on. Beyond this players are given a choice of four basic character classes, if they meet the proper requirements. Four advanced classes become available later in the game.

    The game also allows you to pick your alignment from good, evil, or neutral, and the choice will have an effect on the story and your relations with other characters. However, the game seems to be slightly weighted toward the good / neutral side. None of the character classes ever requires you to be evil, but the most of the characters who join your party early on are either good or neutral and keeping your party unified is an important part of the gameplay. Unless players design a party from scratch, which has its own disadvantages, most will have an easier time by role-playing the side of good. This may be a design choice, but it's a questionable one, considering you're given no warning of it early on.

I'm an elf!!!

    Most players will likely stick to the story characters they can recruit over the course of the game. Not only do they generally start with high stats and a fuller compliment of spells, they also add much to the overall experience by actually having a role in the story as the game progresses. Player-made characters may offer a bit more customization, but they have no dialog and remain stat-based ciphers throughout. Considering the limited selection of classes - four beginning and four advanced - it's easy enough to design a well-rounded party around the story characters. Unfortunately, these have their own shortcoming; you aren't allowed to change their classes without the aid of expensive orbs that can only be purchased later in the game. In essence, players are given the choice between customization and story, but one has to wonder why both couldn't have been included together.

    Players will have to put a lot of thought into their party makeup due to Wizardry's "Trust System." In addition to all the standard physical and mental statistics, each character also has a trust level, which tracks how well they are bonded with the party as a whole. Gaining the characters' trust is key to success in Wizardry, and almost all the characters have different requirements for earning it. Good characters will trust you more if you make noble decisions, both in and out of battle, while evil characters will respect a more sinister approach. In addition to their alignments, characters have their own personality traits, which can have a huge bearing on their trust levels -- some may hate to see their friends fall in battle and will begin to distrust you when other characters die, others may like to be around members of their own race and will gain a trust bonus if you have more party members like them.

Calling for backup

    The trust system is well implemented and, more importantly, has a strong effect on the gameplay. As your parties trust levels increase, you gain access to powerful Allied Actions, cooperative techniques for attack and defense. Though Wizardry offers fairly standard, first person, turn-based battles, which allow you to choose each characters' actions individually, the Allied Actions form the true core of the combat system. By assigning different actions you can, for example, have the back row guard against a enemy attacks, while two characters execute a pincer strike. The back row could provide covering fire, which raises your chance to hit with melee attacks, or you could send out a strong fighter as a decoy and then have the other characters attack the enemy from behind. Ultimately, the system is a bit limited -- there are only about twenty Allied Actions in all and many of them are less than useful -- but it does does allow for a kind of cooperative strategy not normally found in traditional RPGs.

    Compared to the innovative combat, the magic system is somewhat disappointing. The game only provides two types of magic: offensive sorcerer spells and more defensive priest spells. Only characters of the proper class and level can learn a spell and the spells themselves are taught by using specific magic stones. These can be found in the dungeon, but more often you'll have to make them yourself by combining items won from monsters. The end result is that your acquisition of spells early in the game is somewhat haphazard, as you recover random items from the dungeons. Later, as you attempt to level up your spells and gain the final ones, the game can devolve into a lengthy fetch quest to find the proper item. Fortunately, a side quest later in the game provides players with an item shop that will sell unlimited quantities of any item the shopkeeper purchases from the player.

Let's Make a Professional Orc Soccer Team!

    The town of Duhan offers only the most basic facilities: an inn, a temple, a guild to exchange characters and change classes, a tavern to take on new optional side quests, and a single shop. The meat of the game, of course, is in the dungeon itself. The Labyrinth of Duhan is at once Wizardry's strongest and weakest point. While three of the dungeon's levels are randomly generated, the other eight are thankfully more creative and have a more inspired design than usual collection of caverns, caves, and large underground rocky openings found in most dungeon hacks. Unfortunately, the actual graphics used to portray all of them are so muddy and bland that even the most interesting locations have little impact. The design behind the dull graphics, however, is solid. The dungeon holds unique areas, shops, and encounters. This last point is where the game is at its best -- the actual dungeon crawling in Wizardry is loaded with much more personality that one would expect from the genre. The labyrinth is overrun by other adventurers and odd characters and the game's frequent encounters with them, often as the result of one of the many quests from the tavern, go a long way to liven up the otherwise repetitive gameplay.

   The other attempt to add variety to the exploration, in the form of a deadly Reaper who will chase you down if you dawdle on a level, is less successful. Characters who are possessed by the Reaper will take more damage in battle and possibly become permanently lost if killed. Consequently, the Reaper really only provides yet another reason to return to town prematurely. The game does make a small attempt to balance this -- certain secret doors can only be found by a possessed character - but these are so rare they hardly factor into the overall experience.

    Fortunately, the drab presentation is alleviated a bit by the excellent character and monster artwork provided by Katsuya Terada. Although the frequently used (and frequently recycled) character portraits never animate during the game's story scenes, they are exceedingly well-drawn and give some personality to what is otherwise a straightforward, D&D-inspired world and a by-the-numbers plotline. Wizardry should also be commended for largely sidestepping the use of mere pallette-swaps for the monsters. Duhan's labyrinth offers dozens of unique and well-designed creatures, which helps to keep the game's constant stream of battles at least somewhat interesting.

When indie rockers attack

    But all the personality in the world ultimately can't distract from the fact Wizardry is basically a dungeon crawl, and often a fairly unpolished one at that. One of the biggest annoyances in the game is the fact that you must return to town and rest at the inn in order for the characters' level gains to take effect. While this may have an old school charm to it, in practice it only means that you'll constantly be forced to return from an otherwise successful foray into the labyrinth just to have your experience gains actually count. Considering that your progress is cut short often enough by the need to return to restock supplies, save, and cure or resurrect party members, the level raising mechanic just seems like a artificial constraint to lengthen what is otherwise a fairly short game. Though a potion will let you to teleport directly to town, no such luxury is allowed on the way back. Shortcuts open up to make your trip back down to much quicker, but these still involve traipsing through a portion of the game's earliest levels and spending quite a bit of time to simply get back to where you left off. The game also has a nasty habit of springing bosses on you with little or no warning, meaning the unprepared will find themselves losing hours of unsaved progress. Characters can be lost forever when they die, but the game provides plenty of leeway in this respect -- the threat of it is enough to keep you on your toes without it ever having to actually happen.

Fear the Reaper

    Other small annoyances also put a damper on the fun. Though Wizardry's dungeons are fully 3D and often offer large, cavernous areas, the movement is locked in to a sluggish and unresponsive grid-based system. Your party can only move one "tile" at a time and analog is not supported except for a limited (and largely useless) look function on the right analog stick. The cumbersome control certainly isn't crippling to the game, but it does lead to unavoidable enemy encounters and slow navigation. When you find yourself longing for the flexibility and responsiveness of the control in a King's Field game, you know something has gone wrong. Thankfully, monsters do appear in the dungeon before you encounter them, but the slow control, confined field of view, and cramped corridors often mean you'll be running into them whether you want to or not.

   Considering its modest design goals, however, Wizardry is much better than one would expect. As homage to one of the forefathers of genre, it is largely a success, but the bigger problem is that it feels like a game caught between two sets of design philosophies. The game hardly offers the stat-crunching intensity and wealth of customization of contemporary PC games, nor does it have the varied gameplay or focus on story and aesthetics for which console RPGs are best known. The resulting mix isn't quite as compelling as either of the traditions it draws on, but still offers plenty of challenge and playability to those looking for a return to the genre's oldest roots.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land
Developer Racdym
Publisher Atlus
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation 2
Release Date  11.15.01
Atlus officially announces Tsugunai, Wizardry for U.S. release
113 screenshots / Dungeon hack poetry
9 character designs
US / Japanese box art