Wizardry – the historically important RPG video game phenomenon I’d never heard of until recently.
In 1981, the very first version, written by Robert Woodhead (who I had the pleasure of interviewing last month) and Andrew C. Greenberg, was one of the first generations of video games to bring the Dungeons and Dragons pen-and-paper concept to the desktop computer.
To gain an understanding of this heritage, I played the original Wizardry on a DOS emulator. I can still see the groundbreaking magic in its wire frame 3D dungeon corridors, pre-Microsoft Windows driven interface and colourful monster sprites. Today’s gamer may shrug, but these elements were all a big deal back then.
Wizardry‘s dungeon-crawling gameplay was brutally challenging and it was easy for your entire group of lovingly made player characters to be wiped out in a single random encounter with pixelated goblins.There was no save game option, so the stakes were always high.
Wizardry‘s success in the US market was inexplicably also matched in Japan, despite them missing most of the in-jokes and western pop-culture references. Since then, fueled by this eastern enthusiasm, an endless tide of Wizardry titles and spin-offs appeared over the years on Nintendo and Sony game systems.
Back in the USA
Only recently has Wizardry returned to its native desktop platform in the shape of Wizardry Online, a dungeon-crawler MMO marketed on its difficulty and the ever-present threat of character perma-death.
I gave it a go, but I’m sorry to say, despite the respect it shows the Wizardry legacy, I wasn’t impressed. Wizardry Online feels dated in a bad way; the cut-scenes have painfully childish and irritatingly slow written dialogue which makes Golden Axe‘s script look like Shakespeare. The nauseating background music just adds to the torture of these moments.
The art style is a strange collision of monochrome European architecture and vaguely Anime-styled character models, but built on ten-year-old technology. The gritty medieval style is relatively appealing, but it feels drab and lifeless. Everything is just so… grey.
Perhaps I’m just out-of-touch, but I find the presence of these bubble-headed baby characters jarringly at odds with the rest of the art style. I know it’s a staple of Japanese gaming and perhaps it works in Final Fantasy and Guild Wars, but in Wizardry Online this odd montage of gaming cultures just doesn’t work for me – it’s like Mario and Luigi turning up in Mass Effect.
The Wrong Kind of History Lesson
Playing the tutorial session felt like an early Tomb Raider game, which does tie in to the retro appeal, however there is a lack of polish and a rushed quality to the experience which might have been overlooked a few years ago, but is a pretty poor show by today’s standard. It may appeal to franchise die-hards, but I’d be surprised if Wizardry Online gets much of a foothold in the mainstream western MMO market.
An early example of the shoddy execution was the lack of a user-friendly means of changing the default screen resolution from a low-res 4:3 aspect ratio (does anyone still use that?). Ironically, this particular problem led me on a trip down memory lane as a went searching for what they used to call a poke in order to rectify the visual car crash.
For those prepared to invest the time, perhaps there is some enjoyment to be found in the combat and maybe the multiplayer element can mitigate the repulsive initial experience, but I found my first few hours of gameplay so unappealing that I stopped caring and struggled to justify the time investment.
All things considered, Wizardry Online feels like a slapdash attempt to take what is clearly a cult classic and jump on the current free-to-play MMO trend. Considering its legacy there is some retro appeal to be found, but the questionable implementation makes me sad to say Wizardry Online should probably stay in the past where it belongs.
There may be something of value to be exhumed here, but it is going to take more time and dedication to unearth it than I am prepared to spend. There’s not much to be found in Wizardry Online that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.
But on the plus side, it is free.
Wizardry Online – An Unappealing Retro Culture Clash
Revisiting classics can be recipe for success, but this mangled cultural fusion resurrects more bad gaming tropes of yesteryear than good.What Our Ratings Mean