Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (1990)

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I can’t pinpoint exactly when I played Wizardry 6 the last time, but I’m reasonably sure it was more than 15 years ago (my old review was long done after the fact). So, when I went to replay it, my nostalgia goggles were fixed in place. And to be honest, some of the stuff I remembered fondly didn’t work all that well this time. Other stuff did, and some things I overlooked the last time made me appreciate the game even more.

So in order: puzzles, interface, dialog, battles and graphics. And writing for last.

While the game has a lot more puzzles than any previous Wizardry, most of them were rather enjoyable in the sense that when you reached the right situation and looked at the tools you had, you got an idea, tried it and it actually worked. The cheese and the wall break, the bubblegum and the jumping chest, the hook, the rope and the chasm, these were the kind of puzzles I liked.

The drawbridge puzzle is the exception, it’s one I never managed to solve myself, had to look it up now (and in the past) and even then wasn’t sure how one got the solution based on the rather opaque hints.

What often stumped progress in the game for me weren’t puzzles per se, but the lack of door signs. When I got the jail key, I remembered reading a one-time note saying something about a jail, but by that point I’d completely forgotten where it was (and sadly did not make a note) and had to brute-force all doors to find the right one. Even more obnoxious was the Sorcerer’s lair, where the door sign was after the locked gate, and for which you needed not a key but another item. This was another one I had to look up, something I do only sparingly and I got even more annoyed when I found out the solution.

Sometimes what stopped my progress were simple oversights, for example I didn’t realize that when I said yes to giving the ashes to Charon, I didn’t actually do it, but had to do it manually afterwards. This one was on me obviously.

The interface in general is something I enjoyed this time even more than the first time. Often my biggest problem in old games isn’t dated graphics or conventions, but obtuse interface design. Wizardry 6 has one of the most effective, leanest keyboard-only interface that allows you to do lots of action with a few key-strokes. You can actually activate the mouse, but I advice against it as it slows down everything and the interface wasn’t really designed for it.

One of the major things I enjoyed less this time around was the dialog-system, which is more or less keyword based. In general I think keyword-based systems are superior to dialog trees or god beware dialog wheels, but the implementation in Wizardry 6 simply sucks. It was often less keyword-sensitive and instead phrase-sensitive.

To progress I often brute-forced NPCs to get the clues needed to go on. Quite literally, as I killed all friendly NPCs on first sight, got their alternative quest items to see what I should be asking them and then reloaded (C&C at its finest). Even with that parallel construction, I sometimes had no idea what exactly to ask to get the required response: for example I never found out what to ask the Faery Queen to get the answers for the Delphi’s riddle.

Another case was Xorphitus, who after defeat asks why you killed him. Don’t reply with “pen”, as the system is too stupid to recognize the correct but wrongly worded answer. It’s only annoying because the wrong answer gets you an insta-kill, and I feel given my reply that wasn’t exactly warranted.

Despite all my mentioned misgivings up to now, the beating heart of the game is the battle system (round/phase-based) and you know what, if you manage to enjoy it then you’ll likely enjoy the game even if you quibble with other minor elements. And boy did I enjoy it.

Sure, save-everywhere invites save-scumming (which I did extensively) and which makes all Wizardry’s from this point on much easier than earlier entries in the series, but its still a fun system. All other game mechanics directly or indirectly work in support of the battle system, from item identification, spell casting, character leveling. Even resting, which is not the kind of resting you get for example in Eye of the Beholder where you can simply spam the rest button.

All it gets you in Wizardry 6 is a mean laugh, some stamina and MP, often little HP and very often a group of unfriendlies attacking your still sleeping characters. Every area without any close-buy fountain to replenish your health makes the gameplay into a march of attrition where you scrape buy on your last few hit and spell point and really hope you don’t get the big ninja family with grandfather, chunin and bottom line ninjas in your next fight.

Encounter design is great overall. Whenever you feel like you’ve become invincible, leveled your characters to the point where you can easily obliterate any current foes, you enter a new area and get stomped to the curb. A lot of CRPGs have a weak endgame where your characters are a force of nature that can easily beat everything. On the other hand, if you go through Wizardry 6 at a normal pace and don’t grind, then you’ll get your ass handed to you in each new area and the temple of Ramm at the end will eat you up.

Another thing about encounters is that different types of enemies turn up in each new area that force you to change tactics. Some enemies are utterly deadly if not killed on the spot, some need to be silenced first and then you can slowly whittle them down, in some areas the smart thing is to use fire shield extensively and so on. Lots of blobbers try to achieve this variety in encounters, but few manage it as exceedingly well as Wizardry 6 does and it definitely is a cut above most standard-crawlers.

In the beginning I said graphics penultimate and writing last, but actually those two points are somewhat connected for Wizardry 6 in my mind. I think at the point the game was published EGA was slowly trounced by the VGA standard and I remember few games where I preferred the EGA to the VGA look, but honestly, this is one of the rare cases where the EGA graphics really improve the the game.

Wizardry 6 takes place in a decrepit castle that is both figuratively and literally rotten to the core and slowly eaten away by the ages. The EGA graphics give it just the right, gloomy-looking, run-down visuals that more shinier VGA graphics would not have achieved. In a way, the EGA graphics are the perfect look for the game.

And they perfectly integrate with the story that comes out in bits and pieces during the course of the game. It’s all bleak and morbid. But it’s not just the story that’s important here, to enhance the sparse visuals there is a lot of writing illuminating the scenery, setting the mood in a way that is utterly perfect, even if the writing is more on the purple side of things. I wouldn’t want to read a whole novel written in that style, but here it works perfectly, tightly integrating with the graphics, the occasional conversations with friendly NPCs and not so friendly boss encounters, all in an over-the-top style that still fits the mood Wizardry 6 establishes from the beginning. Our party’s trip down the lanes of the Bane Castle is the final chapter in a horror story of the old Gothic-mode, and the writing here is the perfect fit for it.

One more thing I really like about the game is how tightly integrated the maps are. It’s easy to fault the game for including a variety of (maybe not always fitting) environments all next to each other (an amazon pyramid, dwarf mines, a major mountain, pirates, river styx and more), but then overlook how each area spirals back to the others, how useful the introductory hub-area of the castle remains up to the end of the game and just how well all the maps are designed.

In blobbers like Wizardry 6, mapping was part of the fun. I understand that people these days don’t have the patience for this anymore and it’s obviously easy to download full maps for the game everywhere, but that’s not the point. If mapping itself wasn’t such fun, integral part of the gameplay, we wouldn’t have the Etrian Odyssey series. This time around, I didn’t use any paper, but the Grid Cartographer software that essentially replaces grid paper but adds lots of neat tools and makes mapping even more enjoyable. Run it side by side with your dosbox-emulated copy of Wizardry 6 and you’ll have a great experience if you like mapping at all.

Compared to the sprawling massiveness that is the immediate sequel, Wizardry 6 is a tightly designed, almost perfect exercise in CRPG design that evolved the basics from the previous games in the series in a way that felt both like an act of obeisance and also of improvement. It’s an achievement, one that has stood the test of time and can be enjoyed today just like yesteryear.

P.S. Another essential link for this game is the Cosmic Forge editor, not because of the editing, but due to countless bug fixes and mechanic enhancements it provides (for W6 as well as W7 and W8).

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