By ValorianEndymion 8 Comments
A Handful of Wizardry Successors
A long while ago, while playing Elminage Original, something hit me, it turns I really liked that kind of game, I mean even before, the Might and Magic series is one of my favorite CRPGs, so much I write a whole series of blog post about it - Might and Magic X an fitting end Might and Magic X - An Fitting End?
Also, not entirely related, but I even did a short pixel art animation, largely inspired by the visual of first person DRPGs and old pc engine games, during this year Pixiv Fantasia event on Pixiv. Which you can see it below:
Anyway, in sort of small self AD, here is the link to: My Pixiv Profile
But now, it struck me of maybe trying to figure what exactly I like so much in this genre, and from there the genesis of this blog post was born.
So I would like to talk a bit about Old School Dungeon Crawlers, but let’s short it for DRPG (but keep in mind, I am talking about the ones which use first person view), but of a very particular kind, games which draw from the classic series, Wizardry.
The reason is that I like to think that in a genre you might have sub-genres, which might not even born from the same source. Just think how if you do a quick glance, you have Dungeon Crawlers, for the sake of clarity, I still mean the first person kind, which use more turn based mechanics (Might and Magic, Wizardry) and real time (Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Hack, Lands of Lore, Ishar). And that is just one aspect, they can branch a lot.
Now, you might already know, in case not, I recommend checking out the CRPG Book or Hardcore Gamer 101, how Wizardry was influential for the birth of JRPGs, so much that the actual franchise itself continue to live in Japan for years, even after its death in the west.
Also, to let clear the limit of what I will be able to cover here, I can’t or have access to all the potential games, so I will limit, much as the title suggest to a handful, which can be found on Steam, more precisely the following games: Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, Stranger of Sword City Revisited/Savior of Sapphire Wings, Elminage Gothic/Original, Operation Abyss/Babel: Neo Tokyo Legacy.
The first part will be a couple of thoughts on some aspect and concepts of first person grid based dungeon crawlers in more general sense, the function of this party is mostly comment and share some stuff I think about.
After it there will be a short recap of Wizardry main characteristics and how the covered games, follow or put their on twist on that, and the last part is description of the said games, plus a section for honorable mentions, which cover a few games in the style, that while might have little do to with Wizardry, might be worth mention.
Some Aspects of DRPGs:
Real-Time and Turns.
While the games I cover, use turns, it might be worth talking a bit about turns and real time:
It is very easy to wrongly think of these two elements not like tools, whose work depends on a lot of other elements, but as almost a false necessity, where one is viewed as “better” versus the other.
While in general when people think of Dungeon Crawlers, Eye of the Beholder is the one to came in mind, and the one most used for comparison, specially when thinking in the ones which used real-time, Dungeon of Daggorath (1982) was really the first one to use it, while Dungeon Master (1987) popularized the concept and a lot of other such as paper dolls and even the idea of casting spells from mixing runes, paper doll for inventory, which them would lead to Eye of the Beholder (1991) and later games such as Legend of Grimrock.
Real-time is kind very trick, if done right you can have a certain flow which is very good, but it’s not easy to reach it, as one major issue for this kind of game (and other too) is that the amount of things you are meant to handle all at once as have a limit, which can create a strange paradox, if you add too many things, the game becomes unwieldy, have too little, and you might have generic game. Like I said, the concept does not exist in vacuum, it depends on a lot of factors.
As example, take Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Hack, both use AD&D rule set, both use the same engine, so what is the difference? In one, you have four character and in the other a single one. What this causes? The first have much better pace over the latter. Dungeon Hack can feel very sluggish and boring, specially if you play with anything which isn’t a fighter or cleric. Mind, this was just changing the number of party members.
Even outside from the genre, just think of an FPS where enemies are sponges which take billions of years to die and how slow the game can feel.
But to stick to the main theme of the blog, let’s go back to DRPGs:
The main potential issues lay in two aspects, first, which I mentioned above, is how many things the player is supposed to do or react, this much depend on the overall speed of everything and UI design, meaning that trying to control a party and react quickly can become a major issue, for example, in a rush, it can be hard to open the spellbook, find the right spell and then cast it.
This example I just give was on major problem in SSI´s game Ravenloft: Strahd´s Possession, which used an earlier more free form 3D movement, and often you died because something happened behind you or around you, but simple turning around or even open the spell book or using a potion was rather slow. There are two noticeable moments where happen, on at the very beginning of the game, where a handful of Wargs attack while you’re still trying to get used to the game interface. Later, in a dungeon, a Bone Golem pop up behind you at a certain time, that mostly like will kill a party member as you try to turn around.
Another issue is that the player might feel that the most efficient thing to do is just attack and step back over and over again, making combat feeling tedious (sure the player in theory could kite around, but the most efficient way still just pull back). Most time, the player less pushing forward, but rather pulling back. Note, in some games which use real-time, sometimes once you lock in combat you cant move anymore.
Combat can sort end in strange place, because, you might not have special attacks or attacks per round in most cases, area attacks are likely limited to spells, meaning the combat itself there is not much direction to go, it sorts the same thing over and over.
Turn based system major advantage is that allow the player to absorb more complex aspects at it own pace, while allowing for more complex systems to be introduced. There is perception of turns begin slower… which is both false and true, and by that I mean, depend on a lot of factors, sometimes in turn based games, combat, despite being in turns and often have way more enemies that in real time, can be a lot faster, how? In turn based games, typically the player have access to area of attack spell or abilities, which speed up thing a lot and again, since things are moving in turn, mean the player can use them to their maximum effect. Damage output can be a lot higher when you have things like attacks per round.
In Might and Magic II, you might have combat against up to 255, which anyone might think takes forever, except, that by the time you reach such numbers, between lots of attack to be round, and absurd spells, such as Meteor Shower or Star Burst, the whole thing can take very few turns.
But like I said, it can be true that it can be slow, specially if the game in question don’t have any area attacks or simple the monsters have too much HP and a lot of other elements or even watching long animations. Also, going overboard on adding elements and mechanics can make the game feel slower.
Some games would use a sort of hybrid system, like Might and Magic III to V, where monsters move freely in real time, you could attack them at range, also in real time, but once you close in, the game become turn based.
Grid and Dimensions
One of the elements of the old style of dungeon crawler based in grids, is that the maps themselves were quite small, this was sort of a limitation of the period, but also work on its advantage.
It is easy to overlook, but in that particular representation of space, where space itself is more abstraction that a literal representation, you don’t need huge map like you would need in a full 3D: Just think, with just a grid of 15x15 (Might and Magic II) you can cram a lot of corridors, rooms and all else you want, but still all in 15x15, meaning that for the player, even with moving just one square at time and with random encounters, that still does not take that much to explore, but still feel pretty big. In other words, grid based maps, have the advantage of being both big and small, or small and big.
Overall sizes in dungeon crawler appear to change between 20x20 which appear in almost all games I will cover (the original Wizardry, Elminage Gothic/Original, Operation Abyss, Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls), 22x22 (Bard’s Tale), 25x25 (I think this was the size for Eye of the Beholder) 30x30 (Legend of Grimrock) 32x32 (Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk), 46x46 (Mary Skelter Nightmares) and I think that might be games with 64x64 and 128x128 or even larger maps, but I don’t know anyone by name (I have vague memories of reading about a dungeon crawler for Amiga with immense maps, but that it is) but for these cases…
… When maps become too large problems rise up, because now, its sort works against it, since the whole “move one square at a time” suddenly might feel as too slow and finding stuff or even simple solving puzzles become even more of a problem, as example, in Ishar series, while dungeons had normal map sizes (16x16), the over world and many of the cities in later games, where huge, which cause two problems: One simple walking from point A to B sort becomes tiresome, second, solving puzzles often are made even hard as you need to be a specific place, sometimes at the right time in an otherwise huge map.
Like I said, grid base maps are sort abstraction of space, instead of literal space… how much fit in a single square? How much you want, in some games a square could fit a NPC, a shop, and temple and so on. Even the number of monster could get pretty high, in Might and Magic II, it could fit up 255, in Stranger of Sword City/Savior of Sapphire Wings, it could fit up 9 monsters, split in 3 rows, in Bards Tale, how about the classic encounter withe 99 Berserkers, all in one square? And so on. On real-time based (or hybrids) might limit the numbers of monster (since often they move around the map) to either up to two to three per square.
With that said…. There is one, well, two, curious aspect for grid maps, the first is that there is one moment where the space can be both literal and abstract at the same time: it when an underground or interior space. Because there you can sort imagine that a square is 5 meters or something, however you might still need to keep monsters per square to one up to three and even limit the size of said monsters.
But the instant you move outside, everything fall apart, I mean the illusion, the reason is that now imagine the square in fixed size, suddenly make no sense, the reason, and that is the second point, is that convey length or distance in grid maps is kind hard, without making them immense. The trick some developers did, specially when making the over world map, is having several maps side by side, both even that sort has its limits (either technical ones of the past, or simple avoiding the map begin way too huge).
But that is not the only trick sometimes they would use, another, that you can find in SSI´s Pool of Radiance, is that they often split a single map in quadrants, and put something in each one, meaning that a single map might feature various levels of a tower, or four different small maps.
In Pool of Radiance: Secret of the Silver Blades they did do a thing, that was quite cleaver, even it use is not that great, to convey distance, what they would do is in a single map have various pieces of corridors, turns etc… with teleports on each end of each piece, so you enter a corridor, take a teleport to another one and so on. It gives the feeling of walking over much wider distances that the map limit, but still in the game feel like you are just walking in a straight line.
Another cleaver trick is in Ishar series, where at a certain point to give you an illusion that you’re climbing or descending a mountain, simple use images.
But in the end, something is only a problem if you make it so, if you don’t try to follow a realistic aesthetic, who care the actual size of each square, or what fit on it? This allows for much more freedom in design, and maybe that the ideal for this kind of game, because objects will look slightly off scale, no matter what anyway or due to engine limitation (of the period or by style) might mean you can’t see a second floor (even if it exists) or you could have line of sight issues in open spaces.
In fact the abstraction of the space, might mean that even the textures don’t matter that much, I mean sure they do matter, with proper art they can look pretty good, as in Ishar games, making the game more evocative. But sometimes, they can look bland and even low res in some ports, but in the end you are not really here for sightseeing, and here is when a proper good sprite art can play its cards, because even if the background, the sprite art can be evocative enough, kind like in a visual novel, where backgrounds might be more suggestions of space, but aren’t the focus, what is the character sprites.
Puzzles are a curious thing, in one hand they are the bread and butter of many genres and when used right are pretty powerful, but if used wrong, they can become worst that thousand combat sequences, manly the reason being, and something that is easy to forget, that poorly designed puzzles have only a single way to solve it (if they don’t use any randomness, which can make the thing worst) and you have no other option, but wild guess.
Also, if poorly placed, they can cause problems even in the narrative, but not in the way people think, which is often, more focused on how weird or outplace they can look like, but rather because they stop the narrative pace dead in its tracks.
One example, and I will cheat a bit here, since it’s not a Dungeon Crawler (but it uses the movement style in some sections), but rather an Adventure/Visual Novel, Suda 51’s Silver Case, where one of the first puzzles, involve unlocking a door, sounds simple, but the context, is kind strange: Because there, you are in tense situation involving hostages, and you need to open a door. However… You will spend this earlier moments of the game trying to get around the strange interface and solving the door code, and here comes to problem, while the door came with instruction of how to solve the code, it somehow, vague and too complex at the same time as it boils down to figure a long sequence of numbers. This can be jarring as the tension vanishes while you’re trying to solve and nothing will happen until you do it (The new version of the game comes with a way to auto solve puzzles like this).
But let’s go back to old Dungeon Crawlers, while some people might think that a barrier for them is either the old interfaces and maybe the combat, the first is a matter of getting used (maybe except when the game is old enough that automap does not exist yet, or you might have to check the manual, as the game itself might not be able to hold things like descriptions) and the latter at least there is multiples ways to do and ways around, even if the result is sort binary.
Now, puzzles or the other hand, can be a bit more complicated, thankfully, mostly where pretty simple, meaning stuff from finding keys, throwing stuff in to other stuff (classic in Eye of the Beholder), Bring X to Y, Kill X or Y, but that said, a couple of the older games might feature what people in adventure games, might call “lunar logic”, the problem is not that developers don’t know what they are doing, but more they are trying to do something more complex that limitations of the time might allow, meaning you often lack a context or more developed explanation. Also remember, old games likely don’t have any kind of quest log (even if they wish to have it, due to technical limitations), meaning that doing several puzzles at once can become worst if you don’t remember what you are doing, or maybe you trigger several puzzles without knowing.
The main case is the Ishar series, many of it puzzles are pretty ambitious and show the developers trying to tell a complex story, but also very hard to figure out and very easy to sequence breaking and soft locking. As an example, in one of the games you might need various skulls to activate a puzzle, but you might not have them at the time (since you might throw them out earlier) and have no more way to find more. That happened to me, I had to reload an earlier save.
Another puzzle, which is about putting a very specific amount of gold in various scales, now, a couple of them were empty and a few not, the puzzle is about looking at the one with have something and putting the same value at the others. So how you might sequence break it? By instinct, you might simply pick up the gold from the scales, as you might be unaware that is a puzzle, and now you don’t know the value you need to input in the others. That also happened to me.
Other times, the problem is that the puzzle might clash with the game mechanics, for context, in Ishar games, you start with as single character and can recruit more to your party, so far no problems, however… Unlike other games you can’t really remove characters from the party, I mean you can, but… each character take a vote for yes or no, and problem is that most of the time they will vote no. So, here lies the problem, at many times you need to add a new key character to your party, but be unable, since you can’t really remove or change character as everybody vote no, meaning you get stuck. The only way around is either let a character die or know beforehand and have the slot open…
There is also a strange quest which you need to rescue a princess, and the first problem is again, I hope you have a slot open for her, or get ready to let a party member dies, but even you managed to get around this, now you have another problem, because while everything you need to do is return to her father, you party members won’t allow her to leave the party since they are (but the game never says it clear) under a magic spell.
From this point the lack of context is the problem, because what you need to do is buying a potion, something which I have no idea, outside reading in a guide of how you are meant to know this, so your party members allow here to leave… However, due to weird translation, the potion name is not that clear, let alone where it is.
In some cases, some games manage to cram in all information and text they need (or most of it) and even include a sort of hint system, in Might and Magic II, there are several places in the game which give you answers to a password or quest, plus there was a small system of messages that if you decoded it, its sort was a walkthrough.
Risk and Reward.
Let me tell you something, one thing that easy to underestimate is a potential of well-designed table of Encounter and Rewards and the Progression of XP, there is a lot of work and design that might go there. Just think, in Might and Magic II you had 255 monsters, however, they are split in several tables for each region of the game, meaning that every map, either over world, city, dungeon, castle had it own table of encounters, that follow it own level progression.
The key point is that there is a very strong relationship between these three elements that is crucial to produce a certain flow of gameplay, to produce something which I will talk more in another section, but for now let’s cover the main three points:
With a strong table of encounters you can keep the combat fresh, since certain monster combinations might require different strategies, and even a sense of mystery, since you can have entire encounters which only play in a few places or were very rare. Something for a genre, which is all about going further and further in a maze, fit very well.
Now this is something that today is hard to make, in one hand, there is the idea of “it does not make sense that an orc is in one room and a bugbear in the other”, which while not wrong, misses the fact that having the entire encounter of a single creature can get boring and that a dungeon as we see in game isn’t a realistic space anyway.
On the other, back there when limitations mean that you could only have a few sprites, at least you could get away reusing them over and over again (how do you think that MM2 had 255 creatures?), but give them different stats and variations. This is something that today is kind hard to do, I mean not impossible, but some people might react negative to it, but also have a unique sprite or 3D model for every creature is not possible either for most developers, meaning the roster can get a pretty thin, making encounter feeling repetitive.
Linked to this is the Table of Rewards, while a lot of game now talk about loot, it is a bit trickier than it looks, a Table of Rewards does not work in a vacuum, simple having what we might today call a “loot table”, does not mean it will work, as it depend on other factors, such as how the said loot interact with the game mechanics and rules.
A classic example, you might have heard about magic items in AD&D, having a “+” some number, let’s say a Long Sword + 1 (1D8+1, plus + 1 to Hit), on surface might not mean much, and the reason is depended on several factors… but before this we need a quick pause for context:
Short Pause: For this example, and to keep the theme of old games, I will use the old AD&D to hit rules, yeah I will talk about the “infamous” THACO, which is often maligned as some ultra bizarre rule, but in truth is not even that strange or complex, just unusual. But let’s do this: see if you hit something you just look at your THACO (Trying to Hit Armor Class of Zero) of your character (each class had it own progression, it starts from 20 and diminish as you gain levels) and either subtract if the enemy armor class is between 1–10 or add if the armor is negative -1 to -10 and then throw a D20 dice, if the number is higher, you hit, if not you miss.
With that said… the earlier you find, the better it is, since early on, any bonus to hit, specially against enemies with higher AC (Armor Class), will feel better, but latter it is then worst the item feels, as enemies in late game, might have much lower armor class.
Now simple adding + number weapon in a game, does not mean that will work the same, because let’s say, and this was something common for the period, the chance to hit uses a more complex calculation, that +1 or +2 might not mean the same thing.
One common issue, is that often loot is plenty, but its effects are simple too small to be noticeable, the excessive small granularity, making finding said item less than a reward. Another is trying to withhold reward for too long, frequently giving only very minor stuff, until almost too late in the game, which make the encounter feel boring as you find not but small stuff.
Also, another common complaint about table of rewards is not getting exactly what you want, This is in reality a more modern issue, because many of the old DRPG, typically used the concept (due to the limitations of the period, or by drawing from earlier tabletop rpg), of character have a rather large pool of potential weapons and armors they could use, meaning even if random, in result is a good result, as you will find something useful, specially in party based DRPG, as you might have up to six or eight party members. Since anything goes, you are likely more to explore or experiment. But some modern games frequently use the concept of skill in very straight way, meaning that now the range of good result is way smaller, something that while in tabletop is easy to solve, in a CRPG is not that, as the player often need to know beforehand a lot of things.
That said, even when you don’t get exactly what you wish, or get something that was specific to a class you don’t have, it sorts create this potential, of what if? I will talk about classes and class changes later, but for example, while playing Elminage Original, I did come across one time to a very good kimono for Shamans and later a very good bow, and then I start to wonder, how I could juggle the party, so one member might become a Shaman?
Now when you play some Old School Dungeon Crawler, you might notice something, that they can be fairly generous, more even than modern games, specially if you know where to look up. As example, Eye of the Beholder would give you a Dagger+4 in its first level.
One last aspect to this, is the Progression of XP, now I know many games don’t use, XP but for the sake of making the text clear, I will use it. The point is, however, is similar to the Table of Rewards and Encounters, in fact is very tied to both of them.
If XP progression is too small, like the modern day loot, the pace is hurt, if the roster of monster is too small or poorly designed, the pace can be hurt, if character need too much XP for the next level, again the pace is hurt.
Survival — Acceleration-Ending.
Now I am going to repeat something I used when I talked about Might and Magic in another blog post, so to quote myself:
“I remember, a long time ago, watching the anime “Hai to Gensou no Grimgar” (Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash), which was about a group of strangers that were teleported to a fantasy world, in other words your well known Isekai, but they don’t really remember their previous lives and had to struggle a lot, specially early on.
This initial struggle, where in the first chapters, the protagonists somehow manage to fail to kill a single goblin, until one day they managed to defeat a one, in a very brutal fight. From there they start to speed up, getting better, improving their gear, but also getting themselves in more trouble, that kind stuck with me.
Then I figured out why, it mostly because, either by accident or design, it captures really well how some old crpgs would play sometimes. It reminded me a lot when I first played Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World (1988) and even some other games which I had start playing such as the Wizardry series or the Golden Box titles. Most of what I say next are most toward crpg not so much tabletop.”
From there I talked about something, which at the time I labeled “Survival, Turning Point and Acceleration”, but thinking a bit I would like to reform this concept to what the titles of this blog is: Survival, Acceleration and Ending.
The first phase is Survival, during this, in many of this game, due you begin at Level 1, with limited resources is the most dangerous part, here random encounters can be fatal, you rate of exploration is limited, as you might only take a single combat before need to rest.
Sounds annoying, after all, this isn’t the “early game hell” trope? But here is the trick part, if done right, it helps to convey the sense of danger of dungeon crawl can have, and here is the big point, the key word I just used PHASE, meaning that isn’t meant to last, trying to keep all way isn’t very good idea or at least is very complicated to do it right and the game does not feel like a slog. Also figure out what to do in this early phase can be very fun, like you can take risks to make it even shorter, making up for all kind of strategies.
So next we have Acceleration, in my previous text, I used the idea of turning point, a moment, where the first phase, but to make it more clear I will join this two in single phase, which will be the longest. Overall at some point, you likely gain levels and now can take more encounters before each rest as your rate of exploration grows, and as you take more encounter you gain more levels, which lead too… Well, you got the idea. This continues until the game end.
Ok, what I mean by all of this? That sometimes, these games, have almost an inverse curve of difficult, like they start hard and then got easier. Now mind I talk this in general sense, because the spikes can and will exist, but there is a flow as you gain momentum. Now I say this, and again to return to the previous section, overall a breakdown in the encounter/rewards/XP can result in the game pace and momentum being lost leading to a stall.
So what I mean, with this long section, it that for this kind of game, (and again, let’s remember, I mean in the sense of genre within a genre), there is a certain flow, that I think is kind crucial, because the idea of building a party and pushing further and further sort need that, however, I DON’T mean that every game need it, but that some might benefit from it. Also, I don’t mean in the sense of this is better or worst, only that certain elements might work better in certain situations.
Another aspect is that this flow I which mention, while might be there, isn’t the same in very one of these games, take Might and Magic and Wizardry, the first often lean in a stronger power curve in comparison with the latter. Well, if you take only on Wizardry itself, the pace is a lot different between the early games, until V and the ones after it.
Now, what I sort look in this type (and emphasis on that word) game, and what I do enjoy, is the flow between, building and develop a party of characters from the scratch, which mean that have to be something there that allow in certain way to develop character, does not have to be complex, but have to be something. The second part is about the flow itself, between the maps never being too large, variety of encounters and treasures and so on.
Little Crash Course in Wizardry Rules.
I won’t cover everything, but just some main concepts, as main reference, most dungeon crawlers which draw from Wizardry do it from mostly from One to Five. With that said, let’s go:
Stats: Strength, Vitality, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Piety and Luck, most game which draw from the Wizardry use the same ones or with some variations.
In Wizardry when you level up, you do can gain more stats but also maybe loses some of them, which is quite annoying, as it might require you to do a lot of load and reload when you level up. The exception will be Operation Abyss series and Strange of Sword City/Savior of Sapphire Wings, which avoid the stat loses and instead give you points where you spend on what ever you want.
Now on the subject of classes, Wizardry would featuring the following: Fighter, Cleric, Mage and Thief, Wizardry would introduce the Samurai (Fighter/Mage), Lord (Fighter/Cleric), Bishop (Mage/Cleric) and Ninja.
Later games would add: Alchemist (VI-VIII) , Ranger (VI-VIII and Empires), Summoner (IV in a certain way, Empires) and Valkyrie (VI-VIII).
Now, what you maybe already know, is that some of these classes can’t or are very hard to have access in the start, because of the minimal amount of stats you need, the idea is must first gain some level in the basic classes before you perform a class change.
So how the games, which I will cover, handle the idea?
Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls play as the classic system V, meaning you get the classic classes and the four elite ones. Not much to comment here.
Elminage Gothic/Original does play very straight it, which is both good and bad, as reload when ever you level up is annoying, however it does introduce some new elite classes: Valkyrie (Fighter/Cleric), Alchemist (Magic user focused in spell which buff the party and more important, have access to a crafting ability), Summoner (can make contract with monsters, which can be summoned as an extra party member, in some Elminage games, from extra party member they can become a full party member), Bard (have access to a Tarot system, where they can pull card which can give both buffs and debuffs), Ranger (Fighter/Alchemist), Brawler (a fighter focused in only using hands), Servant (Maid/Butler in the original text, focused on using items, often several at once) and Shaman (Shrine Priest in the original text, a class focused in rising barriers which protect from spell damage and banishing undead/demons).
Now, another difference is that while some elite classes, follow almost clear line, like making Mage to Bishop, Cleric to Lord, Fighter to Samurai, other classes have no clear line, they don’t even keep up most of their previous spells (something which a Cleric to Lord would do) or abilities. So why would you turn someone in a Servant, Shaman or Summoner for example? The answer is, why not? I know this might sound weird, but it is fun, trying to figure how to fit one of this classes in your party and the abilities, specially the Summoners, make for the trouble.
Operation Abyss/Babel: Begin a more modern take on the Wizardry genre, they take a couple of deviations, from the different stats and how they are gained, something which I already talked about.
Instead of classes you have “Blood Codes”, which are sort classic classes, but with different names, which can be confusing as, as how you might miss that the Blood Code of Academic, is the one which unlock door and disarm traps.
There are no elite classes and you while you can change classes, you almost have no reason for doing it so, but in Babel, they do introduce a system, which allow you to pick a sub Blood Code.
Stranger of Sword City/Savior of Sapphire Wings: Outside from slightly different stats, the main difference and the best one is how classes and change classes is handled.
First the classes, you have Knight (focus in attack lines of enemies and in defense), Samurai (focused in row attack), Ninja (DPS and backstab), Ranger (Long Range), Dancer (focused on some unique abilities), Cleric, Wizard, Clocker (focused on spells which delay or speed combat), Puppeteer (manipulate enemies, like making them attack themselves).
Here, when you reach certain levels in class, you gain abilities, think of them as slots, when you change classes, you can keep up a certain amount of the previous abilities and freely change them. Much of the game is mix and match classes abilities, like you can level up a Knight in some Ninja levels, to gain access to certain Ninja abilities and then change back to Knight.
Now, on combat on interesting idea which was added that is featured in SOCS/SOSW and Operation Abyss/Babel is the idea that your party have access to a selection of special powers which use the beginning of their round, each one need certain mount of points that you gain during fights. Now this powers allow you to do perform actions which can manipulate the combat, either allowing you to runway with no risks, delay enemy turns, rise a barrier to protect for a few turns and so on.
I found this fascinating, because it allows the developers to throw way more complex encounters, while still allow the player have tools to stabilize the situation, like you can use a power which allow you to act first to heal up if you take a nasty hit before.
This mean that the game can throw in some complex bosses that might require you to use certain powers, for example in both SOCS/SOSW, sometimes bosses use an ability called Charm, which is hit is pretty bad news, the key is during combat make sure you have enough points to rise a barrier when the boss give the signal it is going to use it.
Another curious mechanic, which features in Operation Abyss/Babel is the idea of “tension gauge”, as you fight more and more, the tension grows, attacking more dangerous enemies but better rewards, to deescalate it you only need runway or avoid combat. Meaning, you can manipulate the flow of encounters.
It did take a while, but here we are, at least I will talk about the game which I meant to talk about:
Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls
Developer: ACQUIRE Corp.
Publisher: XSEED, Marvelous.
Off the game which I will talk about, this is the one which follows the early Wizardry concept as closely it can, it also a bit dry kind of game, as there is not much on it.
From the limited character portraits, only a handful of dungeons (The Dungeon of Trails, Shin’s Dungeon and Lost Levels) only a few side quests, it all feels a bit dry, even the main plot is sort there and that is it. Even the pace is also a bit strange, as often you came across chests which give you nothing. But the monster design and encounter is pretty good, but that take a while to hit there.
There are almost no major twists, it is a Wizardry game down to the core, and that it is. But don’t get me wrong, it not a bad game, still is modern Wizardry game, it works well, and the flow is there, but maybe because it was low budget game, there is not much else.
Elminage Original and Elminage Gothic
Developer: Starfish-SD.Inc (Gothic/Original), mebius (Original)
Publisher: Ghostlight.LTD (Gothic) / D3 Publisher (Original)
Of which I will cover, Elminage is maybe the second closer to the original Wizardry series, but it does have a lot of original twist, introducing new classes, and it owns ideas here and there. That said, you can tell that is a low-budget game, lots of reused assets or very few (such as portraits), but you can also tell the developers did the best they can with little of what they have.
Elminage music and visuals, limited as they are, manage well to evoke a melancholic and nostalgic feeling to its games, specially the music and while the art assets appear simple, they do look like something you might see as an illustration in an old school tabletop rpg.
The game pace overall is pretty good, encounter design (and monster design) work great, despite not the being largest or anything, but it works well enough to keep it fresh. There are plenty of balanced rewards (but some late items, at least in Original, are a bit too similar in sense of stats, so sometimes they feel less like rewards and some stuff, while really strange, does not appear to have effects to match it).
Now one curious element, that I only noticed in Original, is that in Elminage, Thieves can literal steal ANYTHING. And I mean it, for context, in the games, all monsters, no matter what type, came with two or more items, each to represent their weapons or armor, either natural (such as beaks, fangs, fur, scales) or not (literal weapons and armor). So what? Well, a Thief can first unequip from the enemy and later steal it, no matter what is. LIKE HERE, WHEN I STOLE THE HOT BREATH OF SUCCUBUS. And that is not all! You see, you can equip it, as long you uncurse it first, so bring an Alchemist.
So you can, like me, steal the beak of Phoenix and give to your Brawler to use it as a weapon to punch and kick people. But jokes aside, the deal is that how you find unique items, and it is a pretty cleaver idea, as once you got and figure this out, you likely will return to previous dungeons to pick up stuff.
Gothic (2014/Steam): With the premise of a world falling in corruption, despite the Greater Gods defeating the forces of evil in the past, which now conspire to rise again, Gothic, much as the name might suggest, is a more horror (but lightly) and cosmic horror story.
The structure is similar to old Wizardry games, where you have a main city, the Kingdom of Ishmag and from there, you explore a series of dungeons, as you solve the mystery behind the forces of evil showing up again.
While the narrative is told in a simple format, most by solving what the game call “events” (most simple, but intuitive puzzles) and by unlocking more dungeons, there is a lot of atmosphere to them, even if a bit linear. Still it feels a very evocative, story and the more cosmic horror elements sort work well do the game simple visual, where emphasis is often given to the sprite art and imagination.
Original (2017/Steam): This game is also known as “Elminage Original — Priestess of the Darkness and the Ring of Gods”. This can sound confusing and thanks to the vague descriptions on it storepage, it might look as simpler version of Gothic, which is shame, because it does feel way around, as Original at times feel even better than Gothic.
The plot, much as the name suggest, evolves the party and the Priest of the Darkness, looking of the five rings of the Gods, the major difference is the open format.
You see, instead of just one city, you have several of them and many dungeons already open (plus other which open up as the plot progress), early one you get a compass which can point you to where a ring might be and by doing quests you can get fame, which power up the compass making it more precise.
The location of the said ring are random (and you can reset them at anytime), when you find one, you face one of the Priestess and once you find all o the rings is time for the showdown.
The main attraction is both the open format of the game and the said quests, which often center around using certain class skills and finding or using items in rather cleaver puzzles. As example, one require you to find a Phoenix Feather, which you can get by using the Thief ability, another might require you have a Shogun among your summons, and then give to him medicine in exchange for another item. Another require you to reach an airship, you do this by first buying a rather absurd armor made of meat, which then attract a giant bird that eats your party, that open a new dungeon (the inside of the said bird) and from there you can get on the airship. Later on, if help a Goblin and an Ogre, you not only get to recruit them to your party, but even open up the option of creating new chars which are either Goblins or Ogres.
To make it easier, the game even have a npc which sort gives you hints of how to solve the said quests.
But even more curious is that the game sort have it own “Nemesis” system, early on you face a group of demons, and they sort become recurring characters, growing more powerful at each encounter, making for rather unique encounters, as often their composition sort mimics face another party of adventures.
Another main point, is that the dungeon design are more variated and more fun to explore. Specially, since you have this more open format, you can move freely between several dungeons.
In comparison with Gothic, the story feel way lighter, and the whole find the rings give a monster of the week feeling, as you frequently face one of the priestess when you find it, not that this is bad in any way.
Operation Abyss/Babel: New Tokyo Legacy
Developer: MAGES.Inc, 5pb, Experience.
Publisher: NIS America.
I confess I have a soft spot for anime about magical high schools, and Operation Abyss/Babel is pretty much that, a Wizardry style of games in a modern setting. While its story can be a bit confusing and the tone is all over the place, it does fit the genre of magic high school really well and go to places you might not expect. The art is also, all over the place, some parts were pretty good, other not so much, the game even feature a somewhat “dress up” kind of system which you can use instead of character portraits, but it does not match well with the rest of the game visual style. Overall it’s a good game, a bit confusing at time, due to weird terminology they use at times that can make the dialogue feel like an word salad.
Both games, Abyss is the first and Babel is the sequel, are focused on the Xth Squad, which is your party, by using Blood Code (the game classes), you solve several mysteries, involving Abyss dungeons which appear over Tokyo.
Character creation does use both a sort of alignment system (which the game call Trait) for Good/Neutral/Evil, plus Trait Detail (which does not do anything and act most a way for you to detail more the character), followed by a Type which affect your starting stats.
Like I said earlier, the game feature special abilities you can use, which the game call Unity Skills, your party fill the Unity Gauge as it take or do damage and by doing quest, however, remember the Traits? Yeah, they do affect the maximum amount of you can get if character don’t combine well (like along the party is either good/neutral or evil/neutral they are fine) it is fine idea, but sadly not much explored, like the concept is there, the students, having to get along to use their powers, but it sorts just about alignment that is easily solved by having everyone begin either good/neutral or evil/neutral when you create the party.
Another system the game uses, and which I talked about earlier, is the “Rise and Drop”, where the more you fight in the game dungeons, the more Threat Rate grows, attracting more dangerous monsters, but better rewards.Talking about threats, the game also have some unique enemies, called Wanted Variants, which can sometimes appear, acting as bosses.
But that not all, the game sort have a Dark Souls’s style of message, where players can leave messages to other players, but to be fair I never see it used much, outside what I think it is message done by the developers.
The pace of the game is great, but, again, due to weird terminology often is quite hard to figure if you got something good or bad and while the game does have a crafting system, the weird terms the game uses make it confusing.
Operation Abyss/Babel is a game I like a lot, but I sort which it had more polished dialogue/tone and the high school elements and event begin more present. Despite this, still a unique take on the genre.
Stranger of Sword City Revisited/ Savior of Sapphire Wings
Developer: Experience Inc, Code Glue
Publisher: NIS America.
This is one of my favorite games, well in this case two games in one.
The first Stranger of Sword City Revisited, is an improved version of the original game, like I said above it add new classes, new systems (such as way to improve gear) and new events. Plus some amazing soundtrack and art.
In Stranger of Sword City, your main character is Isekai´d to another world during a plane crash, there you not only found that you’re stronger, but also you aren’t alone, turns that tons of people, the “Strangers” which were also brought here.
I already wrote a blog about Stranger of Sword City (https://www.giantbomb.com/stranger-of-sword-city/3030-42558/user-reviews/2200-30816/) , so I won’t repeat everything, but a short recap a couple of its features: First, you have the Divinity, which is the special power, I mentioned above, you gain morale during battles, which you spend in Divinity powers. Now tied to this and the game plot, the way you gain access to more powers is by defeating the Lineages, unique monsters and handing their essence to one of three different characters, which represent how the story branches out.
How sometimes you find the Lineages? Well either by exploring dungeons, or by using the Ambush system, where you have spots on the map, there you can hide and ambush monsters, which might be carrying around chests and once a while came across with a Lineage.
Now in Savior of Sapphire Wings, your character is the reincarnation of a hero, which in the past lead other heroes to defeat the Overlord of Darkness, but failed. The game is much about figure what did when wrong and this time do it right, as finding the new incarnations of the previous heroes. There are a lot of fun systems, such as instead of creating a party, you find the new heroes, and you have to create true bonds with them, while customize them.
While SOSC is more dark fantasy and its visuals are set to match (note, in the original game, there was option between two sets of sprites one more colorful/high fantasy and the other more dark fantasy, in the revisited, only the dark fantasy set is present), SSW feel more high fantasy, something which show in the party character portraits, but sometimes clashes with the monsters sprites (which often are from SOSC).
The flow of both games is great, SOSC is slightly non-linear, while SSW is more linear as it is more plot driven, but still the flow is good, as making and developing your party is a lot of fun, plus the soundtrack is amazing.
In this section I will talk about two other DRPGs which I played, some which I plan to play and maybe worth to keep an eye out. I thought to also write a bit about either Mary Skelter: Nightmares, Ray Gigant both I haven’t played enough to have a more solid opinion, so in the end I only stick with two games, which have that I played until the end. Also I want to check out Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi, which I released in Steam a while ago, but I haven´t able to see it.
Bard’s Tale Trilogy.
Developer: Krome Studios, InXile Entretainment.
Publisher: InXile Entretainment.
This is an amazing well done port, that add exactly what might be needed, and I mean stuff that at the time would not be possible, such as item descriptions and other quality of life stuff, while allow you to customize the experience as you want. Do you want the very classic Bard’s Tale experience, with all ups and downs? You can have, you want a more modern experience? You have it too! Likewise, you want a middle of the way, sure you can also have it.
The only issue I have, and it is minimal, as is an aesthetic thing, is that I liked more the dither based pixel art of the original art.
Developer: Acquire, Zerodiv
Publisher: Aksys Games
Mind Zero is a curious game, in surface and the mostly you might be heard about it, is that somehow is a “brand store” Persona with very bare bones port for PC, and both those affirmations are not exactly wrong. I mean, the whole thing is sort about Kei and his friends, using their MINDs (aka Persona/Stands), solving a mystery and the port is limited.
The story and character are overall fine, there is some characters which I liked such as Kotone and Lina, but you can tell they cut an arc here and there and the end is a cliffhanger, which have no conclusion as there is no sequel.
The main problem, I feel is the pace, early on the game is very slow, and it does take a while to thing start to move, this does not help the combat, which often repeat the same 3D monsters in different colors and watching the animations can get old fast.