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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Great Games You Never Played: Wizardry 8

Wizardry 8 is a first-person party-based dungeon-crawling three-dimensional open-world role-playing game. Released in 2001 as the final entry in the long-running Wizardry series (which began in 1981 as one of the very first computer-RPGs), Wizardry 8 completes the "Dark Savant" trilogy that began with Wizardry 6, throughout which you're trying to stop an evil villain known as the Dark Savant from gaining access to the Cosmic Forge -- the tools used by the gods to create the universe, which hold the power to create, destroy, or change anything in the universe by simply writing its history into existence. Despite being a continuation of the story from the previous two games (your save files can be carried through all three games), Wizardry 8 works fine as a stand-alone title, although you'll miss a lot of references and it might take you a little longer to understand the backstory.

As part of a game series borne of the 1980s, Wizardry 8 definitely has that vintage, old-school vibe to it, but with the advantage of a much more modern skin which makes it a much easier game to get into. That's absolutely crucial, because this is a truly great RPG that easily ranks among the best RPGs ever made. It's not perfect, mind you -- there's one crucial problem that made me almost want to quit, and it's a little rough around the edges due to developer SirTech's dwindling budget -- but it's got one of the most robust party-creation systems ever implemented in a video game, and one of the best turn-based combat systems of any RPG. Not to mention a fairly sizable open-world with an interesting blend of fantasy and science-fiction elements, and a non-linear main-quest-line that allows for a lot of rewarding exploration and discovery.

If you're importing save files from Wizardry 7, then the start of Wizardry 8 can happen one of several different ways, with your party starting in completely different parts of the world with different starting configurations of the main quest depending on your choices in Wizardry 7. If, like me, you haven't played Wizardry 7 and are starting Wizardry 8 completely fresh, then you begin by creating your party of one-to-six adventurers, who are hired as bodyguards by a researcher on an expedition to another planet in search of an ancient artifact. Your party boards his spaceship, and as you arrive at the planet Dominus, the Dark Savant's black ship appears in orbit and shoots you down; you crash land outside a monastery in the mountains, left to fend for yourself on a foreign planet. As you explore the monastery, you meet an android who sets you on your main quest to retrieve the three mystical relics necessary to complete the ritual of Ascension and become a Cosmic Lord -- essentially a god in charge of overseeing the universe -- before the Dark Savant, who's also trying to Ascend so that he can take control of the universe.

Your first look at this foreign world, being welcomed by a treasure chest.

Already you're presented with a pretty novel concept for a main quest (become a space-god) in a world that blends typical fantasy tropes with modern and futuristic technology. This is a world seemingly built around medieval architecture and customs that somehow has also mastered space travel. The local human town of Arnika has a religious temple with priests who can sell you divine spellbooks right next to a spaceport powered by computers, a blacksmith who forges swords and breastplates right next to a jail with force-field prison cells. The juxtaposition of medieval fantasy and science fiction motifs may seem a bit weird and jarring, but the game plays this theme pretty straight and doesn't call attention to itself. As opposed to a game like Arcanum, where the steampunk blend of magic and technology is considered one of its main draws, the blend in Wizardry 8 feels almost incidental -- you almost take it for granted that this is just the way the world is.

It's pretty easy to find yourself immersed in this world. A lot of that has to do with the first-person perspective that allows you to freely roam its open world with traditional WASD and mouselook controls (you have to remap movement from the arrow keys to WASD), right-clicking the mouse to switch between mouselook and cursor control. An automap function helps you keep track of where you are, but it's not always necessary because most of the world's areas are designed with purposeful structure, which makes them pretty easy to navigate just by looking around and learning their layouts through simple observation. The automap becomes more of a necessity in some of the game's more labyrinthine "dungeons," and unfortunately it doesn't do a very good job whenever you're in an area with multiple floors or vertical levels, because the maps compress everything to a two-dimensional overhead view where a lot of information gets covered up by overlap.

The graphics look a little dated, even by 2001 standards -- just take a look at the 2D textures on the overly-polygonal NPCs, or some of the drab, flat-looking roads between major locations -- but most of the major areas have a pretty distinct aesthetic look to them, like the stone castle at Marten's Bluff, or the Trynnie village built in the Trynton treetops, or the tropical beaches of Bayjin Bay. It's not technically very impressive, but it gets the job done and gives each area a unique atmosphere. Where the visuals simply fail is in the game's incredibly short draw distance, which limits you to seeing only 50-100 yards in front of you at any given time, which is problematic in open areas where you literally can't see the horizon to know where you're going. Unlike Silent Hill, there's no fog or clever thematic excuse to get around this -- the game just doesn't render the environment. Fortunately, the draw distance can be adjusted with mods, which I highly recommend doing, although it can bog the engine down and bring the framerate to a crawl in denser environments like the swamp or Ascension Peak.

Scuba-diving in the shallows near Bayjin Bay.

The game's sound design is much more impressive than its visual design, with the music, voice acting, and sound effects perhaps contributing more to the game's immersive atmosphere than the visuals. There's a sound effect for nearly every action in the game, from dropping different types of items into your inventory to turning a dial on a control panel. Weapons have different "whooshing" and impact sounds, depending on the weapon and the thing you're hitting, and your footsteps make different noises depending on the type of surface you're walking on. The soundtrack uses a lot of traditional symphonic orchestrations for things like combat, but most of the time the music uses a fairly ambient, minimalist approach that helps to create tone and atmosphere for different locations without ever feeling repetitive. Other times the music captures an almost JRPG-type of vibe, such as with the camping music, the Arnika theme, or the T'Rang theme. Meanwhile, every character in the game is fully voice-acted, including your own customizable party members.

Party creation has to be, without a doubt, Wizardry 8's best feature, as it's the most robust system I've ever seen in an RPG. When creating a character to join your party of six, you get 15 different classes to choose from (fighter, rogue, lord, monk, ninja, samurai, valkyrie, bard, ranger, gadgeteer, priest, bishop, alchemist, psionic, mage), all of which have different skills and unique abilities, and 11 different races to choose from (human, elf, hobbit, gnome, dwarf, faery, felpurr (cat-person), rawulf (dog-person), lizardman, dracon (dragonoid), mook (wookiee)), all of which have different attributes which make certain races better suited for certain classes. While it's possible to make a dwarven ninja, for instance -- if you want the dwarf's natural ability to resist damage -- a felpurr would start with much higher attributes. Once you've picked a class, race, and gender, you get to allocate any bonus attribute points you might have leftover, and then you can allocate skill points in several different skills, many of which are unique to the class you select. These range from common skills like mythology, artifacts, close combat, communication, and so on to specific weapon proficiencies and class-specific skills like lockpicking, stealth, music, critical strike, and so on.

Then, once all of the statistical choices are made, you get to name your character, choose his or her portrait from several different options per race (these are all animated with the character blinking, closing their eyes when you camp, and moving their mouths when they talk), and then select their voice and personality. The voice and personality options are surprisingly deep, with nine different personality types (aggressive, chaotic, kind, intellectual, cunning, laidback, burly, eccentric, and loner) and two different voices for each personality type for each gender, for a total of 38 different voices. Each voice within each personality, both male and female, not only sounds different, but also has its own different lines and way of speaking. Your party members don't really banter with each other or other NPCs, but they comment on a bunch of different things at different times, like reacting to winning a fight, or upon entering certain areas, or after talking to certain NPCs. The voice acting really brings these custom characters to life, and it's such a great feeling when you're able to find the perfect match for how you envision each of your characters.

Assembling a party from the pre-made characters. 

There are so many good choices to make when it comes to creating characters that you can spend 30-60 minutes making your party at the start of the game, and then come back after finishing the game to spend another 30-60 minutes making an entirely different party. It doesn't have to be that long and complicated if you don't want it to, however; you could spend as little as 30 seconds selecting party members from any of the 15 pre-built characters and be on your way, or use them as guidelines for speeding up the process of making your own. You have eight slots in your party, but you can only fill six of them to form your core party; the remaining two slots can be filled by recruitable NPCs that you meet while exploring Dominus, if you desire. These characters have fixed starting stats, and most of them have limitations about where they'll go with you, but they otherwise behave like regular party members; you get full control over their actions in combat, their equipment, and you can even manage their level-ups.

Party composition is important in this game, and you get a ton of possible options for what kind of party you want to make, with several different types of melee fighters, ranged fighters, spellcasters, and support classes. When creating your party, you might want to consider having a balanced spread of roles, but you also have to think about what weapons different party members will use, and how you'll arrange party members in your formation. Older Wizardry games had you set your characters up in a front row or back row, with melee fighters up front and ranged classes in the back; since Wizardry 8 takes place in a three-dimensional environment, and enemies can come at you from all directions, you have to set your party up in a circular formation that strikes a balance between protecting your squishier party members from the flanks and rear while also letting all your party members engage in critical combat areas at all times.

The combat formation is divided into four quadrants -- the front, rear, left, and right flanks -- with a protected center circle in the middle. You can place up to three party members in each region. Different weapons have different range values, with swords, maces, axes, wands, and daggers all being considered short range -- meaning they can only engage in combat zones directly in front of them -- while polearms, staves, flails, and certain greatswords are considered extended range, and can hit enemies two combat zones away. A dagger user on the left flank will serve as a meatshield for protecting your squishy mages in the center circle, but he'll only be able to attack enemies on the left flank, whereas a polearm user would be able to attack the left, front, or rear zones. Enemies likewise have different range values, with some enemy attacks being capable of penetrating your formation to hit enemies in the center or rear zones, and if your party members are turned to face enemies and get hit in the back, they take extra damage. Long range weapons (bows, crossbows, slings, guns, throwing weapons) have no zone restrictions but are partially affected by line of sight.

Fighting slimes: a fantasy-RPG classic. 

Combat happens in the real three-dimensional space of the environment -- there are no random encounters, and you're not warped to a separate battlefield to carry out the fight. Typically, you see enemies wandering around the environment, and when you or they get close enough you go into combat mode, which can either be set to turned-based (where the action pauses at the start of each round so that you can issue commands) or continuous (where combat flows at a continual pace, your party members automatically following their last given order when their initiative order comes up). As an old-school "blobber," your party is represented in the 3D space as a single "blob," with the first-person view of the camera representing your party's central position and facing. So if you're fighting a group of rats, combat will initiate while they're still at range and you can queue up a "move" action to move your party towards them, or let your ranged fighters take shots while they come to you; they'll likely start to surround your party, and you may have to move party members around within the formation or change the formation's facing as the fight goes on to ensure everyone can participate at all times.

Combat can end up being incredibly tactical, with you having to make decisions about who should be targeting what enemies and adjusting your positioning as the situation demands. You can even use the environment to your advantage; if you put your back against a wall, you can condense your formation, knowing that your back is safely protected, by putting your ranged fighters in the back and your melee fighters in the center circle and side flanks, thereby allowing everyone (even short-ranged fighters on the flanks) to attack the front; if you set yourself up in a narrow hallway you can funnel enemies towards you from one direction and blast multiple enemies with AOE cone attacks. Spells target either a single enemy or an entire group of enemies, or else have an area of effect depending on where you aim them. Some spells are cones and shoot out a 45-degree wedge in whatever direction you aim it, while others are radius spells that hit all enemies within a certain range of wherever you place the center of the spell. Like other types of ranged attacks, these are affected by line of sight -- you can't shoot around corners, and enemies behind obstacles (or other enemies) are sometimes safe from damage or being targeted.

Wizardry 8 may take the cake for the best party-based combat system I've ever experienced in an RPG. As much as I enjoy the action-point combat system of the original Fallout games, I think I might like Wizardry 8's a little better. There's a lot that you can do within the system: changing your party's formation and facing, moving into different positions to use the environment to your advantage, assigning different targets, switching weapons to reach different targets, using any of the dozens of potions, bombs, and powders to buff your party or attack/debuff enemies, and casting any of about 100 different spells with dozens of different functions. This isn't a combat system where you just spam attack commands and wait for the battle to end; every round has some kind of engaging decision to be made.

Getting attacked by bandits on the road.

Unfortunately, combat is also the reason I almost quit playing after making it a mere 18 hours through the game's 80-100 hour campaign. While the combat has a lot of stimulating tactical depth to it, with clever implementation of turn-based systems in a 3D world, there is, frankly, way too much of it in this game, to the point that the fun and satisfaction gets replaced with frustrating tedium. There are two problems with Wizardry 8's combat: constant respawn and enemy level-scaling. If you spend an hour exploring an area, killing everything in the process, when you inevitably have to come back through that area (you're going to be constantly running back and forth between locations as quests demand) the entire map will have been repopulated with random new spawns who'll aggro you from all the way across the map, seemingly, to force you into combat. That wouldn't be such a problem if the fights were quick and simple, but they're not, because enemies scale up to your level (to a certain point) so that you're basically always fighting evenly-leveled enemies that give you an even challenge in every single fight, even if you've improved four levels since the last time you were in that area.

It's worth mentioning that enemies only ever scale up to your level, never down, and that only applies to the random clusters of enemies that are spawned periodically to keep each area "active." Even then, there appears to be an upper limit to different areas for how high enemies will scale; in the starting areas, enemies might only scale up to level 12, whereas later areas might scale up to level 30. So when you come back to the starting areas at level 20 you might finally have an easier times with the enemies. Besides these random spawns, each area also has a number of set encounters with enemies who have fixed levels. The bandits occupying the ruined house in the northern wilderness will always be level 8-9, the golem guarding the bridge to the mountain wilderness will always be level 14, and so on. These enemies do not respawn when they're killed, and the fact that they start out higher level than you and don't scale down means there's always incentive to level up and get stronger because you want to beat these enemies to complete quests, or to gain access to new areas, or to get pre-placed items and equipment.

That constant respawn of "trash" mobs (who really aren't trash, since they always put up an evenly-matched fight) really wears on your soul, however, and it's especially bad in the early areas of the game when you're stuck wandering pointless roads that only exist to spread major locations out and to force you into combat. After making it to the first town, I decided to head south and spent forever struggling against really tough enemies, and so decided to reload my save and head north, instead. I made it pretty far that way but then reached an area where one of my recruitable party members wouldn't go, and so I turned around and went back to town, bought better gear, and set out south again. I made it further that time, but then got diseased by some rats, which forced me to turn around and go back to town to cure the disease. I set out south again and made it even further before running into an NPC who gave me a quest that sent me right back to town. Meanwhile I'd been playing for nearly six hours and I'd gotten nowhere and done virtually nothing except fight endless random spawns.

A Screaming Head attacking the party.

It's not just because the fights are so frequent (they even spawn in towns, a cardinal sin as far I'm concerned), but also because they tend to drag on forever. Combat is incredibly slow, with enemy attack animations taking much longer than they need to, and with awkward pauses between every enemy activating. If you're going to play Wizardry 8 you basically need to install a mod that speeds up combat; by default, a fight with a group of common trash mobs can take as long as 30 minutes if you're stuck waiting for 20 of them to activate their painfully slow animations one-by-one every single round. That's not fun or challenging, it's just annoying, and it gets even worse when you consider how many status effects exist in this game. There's poison, blindness, terror, irritation, nausea, disease, insanity, turncoat, slow, swallowed, paralyzed, webbed/stuck, drained, unconscious, hexed, and it's just an obnoxious pain in the ass dealing with any of these, especially when you consider that seemingly half of the enemies in the game spam these obnoxious status effects AOE on the entire party.

You improve your characters' abilities through a combination of using them and by allocating skill points during each level-up. In combat, this means your tank will automatically improve his sword and shield skills just by attacking and being attacked, which will be happening every single round. For mages, who have a limited amount of spell points that they can spend before resting, you can't always afford to spam spells every round because you'll quickly run out of spell points and have to rest, which causes enemies in the area to respawn. And yet you kind of have to rest, especially in the beginning, to recuperate health and spell points, as well as to maximize the amount of learning you get for spells and abilities being used in combat, which puts you an infinite loop of having to rest from fighting so many enemies, which spawns more enemies which leads to more resting.

Although most random enemies are scaled up to your level, you occasionally run into problems with random fights being randomly too hard. There's a notorious glitch that somehow causes tougher enemies to spawn if you enter a zone at a lower or higher level than the developer intended, which is especially easy to trigger when leaving the starting area. Some areas are naturally meant to be a higher level, but I had a few occasions when I entered an area I'd been to previously and suddenly found myself at level 12 fighting level 16 enemies, and then had to leave the area, rest for 24 hours, and return with new, more reasonable spawns. Even when you're fighting enemies the same level as you, some enemies are just naturally more difficult than others, like when you have to fight Frightmares who spam AOE insanity and turncoat attacks on your party, or plants who spam AOE poison, nausea, blindness, and irritation. And with some areas consisting solely of narrow roads, you sometimes run into issues where multiple groups of enemies end up clumped together and you're forced to fight two or three groups at once.

Fighting pixie sprites in the treetop village of Trynton.

These kinds of fights aren't tough to reinforce level design (ie, there's really good loot hidden here so you gotta beat this tough enemy to get it) or a type of hierarchical ecosystem (ie, enemies are part of a food chain and you have to work your way up the ranks) -- they're just randomly tough. Consequently, you have to avoid a lot of fights for really no good reason; it's not like you're saving those fights for later when you know you'll be stronger because those enemies won't even be there in an hour, and you're not sneaking past enemies to reach places you shouldn't be yet because the scaling, randomized enemies make it harder to tell if an area's meant to be done early-, mid- or late-game. In Gothic, for instance, it's satisfying to sneak past tough enemies because you're deliberately sequence-breaking with a high expectation of finding end-game rewards for taking on a tough challenge early; in Wizardry 8, it doesn't feel like you're exploiting the game for your own good, but rather like you're just avoiding gameplay and skipping parts that would just be unbearable otherwise.

Wizardry 8 wears its old-school roots on its sleeve, as is evident by how brutally unforgiving it can be. This is a game where, if you make a mistake, you're going to pay for it. If a party member dies in combat, they'll stay dead unless you have an extremely rare, super-expensive resurrection powder handy. You get two of these in the starting area if you're really thorough about exploring, and if someone dies after you've used up both of those powders, then you have no choice but to load your save or continue on without one of your party members until you can afford more powder. Likewise, if a character gets poisoned and you have no more potions or spell points to cure it, then you might be forced to let them die. Most conditions will naturally wear off after a certain amount of time, but other conditions last indefinitely until they're cured; if a character is diseased long enough it'll start permanently lowering their stats, which will not revert when the disease is cured.

There's absolutely no hand-holding in this game, and this is no more evident than in the main quest, which expects you to figure out on your own what you're actually supposed to do and how to do it. The setup is so vague that it doesn't even serve as a good hook: your spaceship crashes on a foreign planet, so you just start exploring the nearby monastery, where an android gives you your main quest to "ascend from Ascension Peak," as it's written in your journal. And you just kind of stare at that going "what?" Obviously you're meant to collect the Chaos Moliri, the Astral Dominae, and the Destinae Dominus, and take them to Ascension Peak so that you can complete the rite of Ascension to reach the Cosmic Circle to become a Cosmic Lord and gain control of the Cosmic Forge, but all of that's kind of gibberish if you haven't played the previous two Wizardry games, and it's not clear in the beginning what all of that actually means, or how it applies to actual gameplay.

Talking to a T'Rang about their history.

The game expects you to figure all of this out by talking to people and asking questions. Wizardry 8 uses a classic dialogue system that doesn't give you any prompts for what to say, but rather gives you an input field where you have to type in key words for topics that you want to discuss. It's up to you to pay attention to what a character says and to pick out the key parts of what they say to get more information out of them, and to remember to bring up important topics that they may not even broach without prompting. The game's pacing suffers a bit in the beginning because it's a non-linear open-world and you have no idea where to go or what to do, so it feels like you're just aimlessly wandering around looking for hints or clues to follow, but it ends up being really satisfying once you finally start to get a grip on the world's structure and what you're supposed to be doing.

Obtaining the Destinae Dominus occupies the bulk of your time in the main quest, as it spans from the very beginning of the game to as much as three-quarters of the way through, depending on what order you do things. You learn at the start of the game that it used to be held in the monastery, but that a man named Marten stole it some hundred years ago, and it's been missing ever since. For the rest of the game you're following a trail of breadcrumbs by talking to people and finding key items, trying to piece together the history of where he went and what he did, which involves things like breaking into a fortified castle and solving puzzles to find a secret room that contains his old journal, visiting the Trynnie in the treetop village of Trynton and becoming enlightened so that you can gain the Helm of Serenity (which prevents the party from going insane when you eventually get the Destinae Dominus), and eventually tracking down Marten's ghost in the remote sea caves and convincing him to give you the Destinae Dominus.

The game does a really good job of making you feel like a lost, hopeless caravan stranded on a strange planet, and then letting you feel the sense of progression as you explore the world, become more familiar with its layout and its inhabitants, get stronger, complete quests, and start to gain mastery over and understanding of the game. It's technically an open-world, in the sense that you can go virtually anywhere at any time and complete quests in any non-linear order you want, for the most part, but it's divided into smaller regions connected by loading screens. This, I feel, gives the world a good sense of structure, with clearly defined regions that have spatial relations to other regions. It also helps to give you a sense of direction; after getting out of the monastery you really only have two directions to go in, which will progressively branch out into more and more directions, which gives you a chance to become familiar with each area before moving on to the next.

Examining a skeletal corpse in the cemetery.

Building familiarity with the world is key, because you'll frequently need to backtrack to previous areas to complete different tasks. That can be kind of annoying because of the incessant combat slowing you down, but after a certain point you unlock fast-travel options that let you warp to specific locations, and you can even learn spells that let you create your own warp points. And it really is satisfying once you reach that point when everything clicks, and you realize that, because you did this one thing over here, that means you can go back to that other place to do something new, or that this strange orb you just picked up might be what you need to power the computer at the spaceport, which you know you need to get working to find the coordinates for the Dark Savant's ship, which you need for a faction quest.

Dominus is inhabited by several different factions, many of whom you can join and work for over the course of the game. The factions consist principally of the Higardi, the human population living in Arnika; the Trynnie and Rattkin, two rodent species who live in the treetops of Trynton; the Umpani, a militant species of humanoid rhinoceri who have set up base camp near Mount Gigas; the T'Rang, an insect-like alien-looking species who live in the advanced sub-network of metallic tunnels; and the Rapax, a horned demon-looking species who've aligned themselves with the Dark Savant. Some faction interactions will be necessary as part of the main quest, but others -- like picking a side between the Umpani-T'Rang feud, or becoming a Rapax templar -- are completely optional, however some elements of the story will be a little different depending on what you do.

Quests aren't the most sophisticated thing ever, since this isn't an RPG with a bunch of dialogue options or multiple different ways to solve every quest. Rather, the quests tend to give you a vague objective (e.g., "find the coordinates to the Dark Savant's ship" or "ascend from Ascension Peak"), and you have to use your own problem-solving and detective work to figure out the solution. Finding the Dark Savant's ship coordinates, for instance, requires exploring enough to figure out that there's a computer terminal in Arnika that can read black box data from downed ships, and that there's another ship that got shot down in Bayjin Bay, and that if you can retrieve that ship's black box and bring it back to the Arnika spaceport, you can get information to feed into the scanner, which needs a spherical orb that can be found elsewhere to work. Once you get the scanner working you need to figure out the right commands to get the coordinates, and then return to the quest-giver.

Random guards patrolling the empty streets of Arnika.

There aren't a lot of NPCs in this world, mind you, which means there aren't a terribly large number of quests to complete. In fact, the world can actually feel somewhat barren and lifeless, since most of what you do in the game is exploring environments and fighting enemies. The first town, for instance -- the most populated location in the game -- only has about 10 people to talk to. These are mostly vendors and important service providers that are absolutely essential for gameplay purposes, plus a couple recruitable NPCs who're involved in a few quests, all of whom you can talk to about virtually any topic with varying degrees of useful responses. The rest of the town is completely abandoned, with dozens of empty houses and no one wandering the streets except for a few guards. The lack of ambient NPCs is explained thematically by the town evacuating after the Dark Savant landed and erected a giant tower nearby with a bomb that could destroy half the planet, but in actuality it's probably because of budget or performance issues.

Other inhabited locations have even fewer interactive NPCs -- the T'Rang headquarters has all of three NPCs in it, I believe, one of whom you can't even access until later. It kind of broke my immersion at first, feeling like I was wandering around this entire world populated seemingly only by random monster spawns, but after a while I realized the lack of other people actually contributes a lot to the game's atmosphere. Much like playing Dark Souls, there's this feeling playing Wizardry 8 where you're just on your own for so much of the game, left to your own devices to survive in a foreign land. The world may feel kind of desolate and barren, but that ends up being part of its charm. In fact, exploring the world actually does feel a lot like Dark Souls, in terms of the way the world is designed and how you have to poke around and figure things out for yourself, except the environments are a little more spacious and open.

The game is definitely at its best when you're in structured areas like the monastery, or Marten's Bluff, or the sea caves, or any of the other locations that function sort of like quasi-dungeons. These are the type of areas where you have to explore a more complex layout, searching for items and solutions to puzzles and the like, which is far more engaging, I find, than wandering around a wilderness area or walking down roads dodging random encounters. It kind of sucks, therefore, that after escaping the monastery it takes a while before you get to the next "dungeon." I was absolutely loving the game during the monastery, and then the experience started to go rapidly downhill as I got stuck fighting endless groups of random enemies as I wandered around open areas and linear roads trying to figure out what to do next. That was when I almost quit, but fortunately I stuck through it and started enjoying the game a lot more once I got back to the better parts of its gameplay.

Trying not to fall into the deadly pit of lava.

While Wizardry 8 feels like an old-school game with more modern features and presentation, it certainly doesn't have the polished feel of modern games. Even for its time, having been released in 2001, Wizardry 8 feels a little rough around the edges, in large part because the developer, SirTech, was running out of money and in desperate need to finish the game. There are several quests and events that they obviously started programming but then never finished; every now and then you pick up a quest that you can never really complete (in one case, because the quest-giver simply disappears from the game), or characters say they're going to do something and then never do. On a few occasions there are quest solutions built in to the game without the actual quest ever being given, like if you bring an NPC an item then you'll get the rewards, but there's absolutely no dialogue exchanged before or after, and so there's no way of knowing you're supposed to bring that item to him unless you use a guide or use trial-and-error spamming items on every NPC.

That unnecessarily obscure design principle (unintentional, in that case) applies to the game's hidden easter eggs, the so-called "retro dungeons." These are hidden dungeons inspired by the classic wire-frame design of older Wizardry games, that you can access by pressing runes in certain areas and then bringing a specific item to a specific location. You then warp into one of three retro dungeons, where you have to follow a series of grid-based rooms and hallways mapping the layout yourself (the automap doesn't work), fighting monsters, opening doors, and navigating warp tiles to reach a boss and find the exit. These retro dungeons are an amusing distraction, but they're ultimately pointless, and it's kind of perplexing how impossibly obscure they are to find without a guide. You get absolutely no indication what pressing the runes is actually supposed to do, and there's no way to know what item you're supposed to use to actually trigger the dungeons, short of carrying every item in the game with you and trying every single one of them.

Some of the controls are still a little cumbersome and obtuse, so you're better off remapping keybindings at the very start, and it takes some studying of the user-interface to figure out what exactly everything does, and how you're supposed to do things. It took me a moment to figure out how to use items, for instance, because the usual double-click, right-click, and click-and-drag-to-portrait methods don't work. Rather, you have to click the "use item" button in the bottom bar and then click on the item. It all makes sense, but you have to familiarize yourself with everything. That's pretty easy to do, fortunately, because of the abundance of tool-tips that let you know what everything does if you hover your mouse over it. For things like attributes, skills, items, monsters, and so on, you can right-click on them to get a pop-up window that shows all of their stats and explains exactly what they do.

The inventory screen.

As an old-school RPG everything you do comes down to how good your characters' stats are. Mages, for instance, must train in one of four different spellbooks, and also with individual realms within those spellbooks. A mage, for instance, would need to train with the wizardry spellbook in order to learn higher-level spells, and his proficiency in the fire realm determines how many spellpoints he has for casting fire spells, as well as his success rate at casting fire spells. A character's mythology skill determines how good they are at identifying enemies to know their health values, attacks, and resistances, while a character's artifacts skill determines how good they are at identifying items to know their stats and what they actually do. Even things like picking locks and disarming traps, which have their own fairly decent mini-games, ultimately come down to your character's skill level.

Picking locks is relatively simple, and simply involves clicking on tumblers with a random chance, based on your character's skill, that that tumbler will stay in place without dislodging others. There's no player skill involved whatsoever, which I appreciate, but the whole thing is just a matter of clicking things enough times until random chance lets you succeed, which, given enough time, means you can eventually pick any lock if you're lucky. And that can be pretty boring just sitting there for a minute or two mindlessly clicking things waiting for random success. Disarming traps is much more interesting, however; mechanically, all you're doing is pressing the correct buttons from eight different choices, but thematically you're using process of elimination to determine what type of trap you're dealing with so that you know whether you need to disable the spring, or cut a wire, and so on. Like picking locks, it's not super complicated, but it does take just a little bit of brain power to solve, and it makes you feel a little more involved in the process.

Wizardry 8 has a lot of great mechanical depth to it, with one of the most robust party creation systems and one of the best implementations of turn-based combat in any RPG. The story, quests, and adventure elements are a bit more subtle, but they also offer plenty to enjoy in terms of the satisfaction that comes from using your own problem-solving skills to figure out how everything works and what you have to do to solve everything. It's not an RPG about selecting dialogue options and having multiple solutions to every quest, but the process of getting from the beginning to the end of different quests is always an adventure. It falls very much into the same category of games like Fallout 1+2, Gothic 1+2, Arcanum, Arx Fatalis, and so on, in terms of RPG systems and world design, so if you enjoyed any of those games then Wizardry 8 is definitely worth checking out. It's also a good example of how older 80s and 90s computer-RPGs used to be, except done up in a much more modern, playable skin. It's just a shame that the excessive combat almost ruins the whole experience, and that SirTech basically ran out of time and money to properly finish and polish everything.

[Note: I didn't take my own screenshots for this game, so all the images in this review are from the Wizardry 8 section of HardcoreGaming101's retrospective on the Wizardry series, a highly educational read that I recommend checking out for more historical context on this game and the series in general.]

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