From EGM 151: “Back in the old days, there was a certain sub-genre of RPGs that has all but died out – first-person dungeon crawls. Dispensing with years of progress, [Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land] ascribes to this timeworn tradition. Thankfully, there are a lot of touches that elevate the game above its ancient kin… [But] the truth is, though, there’s a reason this sub-genre has all but perished. All Wizardry really has to offer is a lengthy maze… Everything is built upon a rotted foundation. I find it difficult to imagine that anybody wants an endless dungeon crawl in this vein anymore…”
There are so many bad things about this review. Back in the old days, dungeon crawlers were hardly a sub-genre; they were all that was available as far as computer based RPGs were concerned, and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, was the progenitor in both the West and in Japan. And as for the reviewer’s doubts as to whether anybody wants games of this type, the recent success of the Etrian Odyssey games on the DS begs to differ. The fact that Atlus even bothered to localize Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a testament to the staying power of the sub-genre wrongly assumed to have died out.
And that is all to ignore the relative presence of dungeon crawlers on the PC made by American and European companies when EGM published their review of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land in 2001.
Granted, it would be six years before Etrian Odyssey made its way into American stores, and even then, the gaming press was underwhelmed. Not whelmed at all, if Game Informer’s review (written by the evidently incompetent Joe Juba) is cited. And even then, games in this style appeal only to a niche, a tiny minority of gamers who either do not like the direction of mainstream RPGs from Japan and the West, or who willingly play anything so long as it is actually good.
Either way, the players who enjoy this sub-genre, such as it is these days, should look into getting a used copy of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, as it is one of the best of its kind, and, from my perspective, even one of the best games on the Playstation 2.
Game starts with character creation. The player’s character is quickly pared off with three other adventurers, a human warrior and ninja, and an elvish priestess. You can choose to create your own party members and leave these behind, but you’ll miss out on some melodramatic, if rather amusing, dialog if you do. I kept them in the party, and added a hobbit thief and human mage to round out the team.
After creating the party, a nameless swordsman leaning on a broken sword leads the player into the dungeon, a deep tunnel created after the flash, a cataclysmic event that killed a large portion of the local town, and reduced the castle to a heap of rubble on top of deep labyrinth. He instructs the party to make it to the bottom of the dungeon, to figure out the cause of the flash, and to utilize “allied actions,” tactical movements that utilize multiple members of the party, by building trust between the members of the party. After introducing the basics of the game, the player is then on their own in the labyrinth, free to accept quests at the local inn to bring in money, equipment, and experience, fighting in turn-based battles and leveling up the party as he or she proceeds down the labyrinth.
In other words, it’s a typical dungeon crawler, but its novelties add a great deal to an otherwise rote genre excursion, the “allied actions” in particular, as they make battles into strategic puzzles. Say that the player encounters a mob with multiple spell-casting enemies and a tank-like physical attacker. If carefully selected, the allied actions can end the battle early, with minimal damage to either the front or back rows of the party. By utilizing the “spell cancel” action, the “double slash” action with two characters capable of critical hits, and an individual spell from one of the party’s mages, all three of the enemies can be taken out in a single turn.
The mobs seem to have been carefully planned out in advance to allow the player to find the right combination of allied and individual actions. This makes almost every encounter a “puzzle battle” so to speak, usually a convention that the Japanese developers only employ for boss battles. It does not mean that the battles are always easy. Aside from some trial-and-error in finding the best strategy for dealing with a particular enemy group, the enemies in Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land actually pose a consistent threat. Ninjas, particularly high level groups of them, can decimate the party with instant kill critical hits, and, when throwing projectiles from the back row, can hit every member of the party, regardless of their placement. Ghosts can de-level a party member with a special attack, and large groups of spiders (as many as twenty, by my count) can throw enough poison to status-effect the entire party.
So along with battle-by-battle planning with the allied actions (not to mention taking into consideration the available spell points, hit points, item inventory, and player statistics), careful pre-dungeon planning also proves considerably important. It is important to gather materials and find special recipes so that spell-casters and priests have access to the abilities that will save a party from being completely poisoned or paralyzed. It is equally important to make sure that at least one of the warriors has an enchanted weapon to deal damage to undead enemies who are resistant to physical attacks.
And just as the battle system is a complex of moving parts, so too are the dungeons. Most of the dungeons are pre-planned mazes, usually with traps or secrets or events of importance, although there are randomly generated floors of the labyrinth. Usually large and containing (only slightly) hidden short-cuts, each segment of the dungeon can become dangerous if the player tarries, as the grim reaper will appear, hunt down the party, and kill one of its members, who can only be revived at the town’s sanctuary.
This is the sort of challenge and complexity that aficionados crave (and I have not even mentioned the party trust and moon-phase systems). More than an “endless dungeon crawl” it offers a great deal of customization, optimization, and challenge that was all but absent in the majority of JRPGs on the Playstation 2 at the time, and just as absent in the Bioware developed games that were developed for, or were eventually ported to the Microsoft Xbox.
One thing I find particularly irritating about that EGM review is that it implies that the game has no story or characterization. This is incorrect; expository sequences and dialog are sparse, and somewhat overwrought, I admit, but they are doled out appropriately and, when combined with the graphics and presentation, add quite a lot to the experience. While the graphics themselves are nothing special, the expert art direction helps to create a distressed atmosphere. The town covered in fog and snow (or ash), the warm and earthy colors of the inn and the pub. Even the art style strikes a healthy balance between googly-eyed anime and a more western fantasy aesthetic, for the information of the Nipponfobic out there.
Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land is an underrated gem from an underrated developer. Racjin (aka Racdym – they changed their name to “be more pronounceable.” Lol) also developed the charming Snowboard Kids (and its sequel) for the Nintendo 64, as well as the excellent Trap Gunner for the Playstation. Recently, they made the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 2, better known here as Final Fantasy Legend 2, which was sadly not localized for the English market.
With the release of a new Wizardry game for the Playstation 3 and IOS, and with the whole of the dungeon crawling genre gaining renewed interest and respect, hopefully a little bit of retroactive appreciation will be given to this unfairly maligned game.