As one of the progenitors of fantasy role-playing computer games, Sirtech's Wizardry series has had far-reaching influence in the gaming world and enjoys a high degree of popularity in Japan as well as North America. By adopting many of the game conventions of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons--which itself drew heavily on the creativity of Tolkien's works--Wizardry brought the concept of high fantasy to the interactive digital world.
Atlus and developer Racdym have created Tale of the Forsaken Land as a sort of homage to the long-running PC series. By drawing on a rich tradition that incorporates so many classic design elements, while also injecting into their work a certain uniqueness, this separate entity is truly a kindred spirit and a worthy tribute to the original creation.
After taking in a hand-drawn intro accompanied by a haunting melody, you will begin the game with one of the fine traditions of tabletop role-playing: character creation. You can choose from six races, including humans, gnomes, and hobbits, and cast your character in one of four basic classes: warrior, thief, priest, or sorcerer. You'll soon find yourself approaching the ruined town of Duhan, where you'll be greeted by a haggard swordsman.
It is here that the story begins. Where you stand, which was once sacred land, has been reduced to ashes and ruins by a great flash from the heavens. At the outset you'll have no idea why you are even here; however, the old man soon tells you that the goddess of fate has spoken to him in a dream, and he asks if you are the savior of whom she spoke.
Without waiting for a response, he guides you to the tavern, where you find two adventurers who are seeking companions to journey into a labyrinth that has appeared underneath the castle following the great disaster. For no other reason than that you feel you should, you look around town and eventually make your way toward the labyrinth.
While it may seem that your initial lack of direction is due to some oversight or the game's simple nature as a dungeon crawl, this is certainly not the case. When you begin your journey you are simply there--all you know about what befell Duhan are hearsay and legend. You seldom speak, and you advance for no other reason than to see what's next.
However, as the story unfolds you begin to remember people, events, and conversations from your past. Before, you had no way of knowing your character had a history at all. The way in which the game gradually fleshes things out is sublime. Equally impressive and complementary to the smooth flow of the story is the game's simple but highly effective presentation.
As is evidenced by the dialogue and in-game literature, Atlus has done a great job with the translation. Dialogue is strong and articulate, sounds humorous when it intends to be, and is further aided by third-person narration. When characters speak, they are represented by expertly drawn full-screen portraits. While these great-looking stills don't normally change expression, the narration does a masterful job of conveying mood, gestures, intonation, and atmosphere. The effect is humble but effective and comes with a definite charm.
The aural aspect of the presentation also shares this simplicity. There are relatively few tracks composing the musical score, but each carries a lot of feeling and is used in the appropriate situations. Background and battle themes will change every few floors as you descend deeper into the labyrinth, but accompanying sound effects provide audio distinction. As you explore the Old Jail, the unnerving sound of rattling chains joins the solemn chant that accompanied you on the previous floor.
At the urge of your comrades and to satisfy your desire to explore, you will continue to descend into the labyrinth. In a way, this is the essence of Wizardry. You'll gain gold and experience while battling hordes of monsters--navigating and fighting in a first-person perspective. After you gain a bit of fame, you'll be able to recruit other adventurers to form a robust six-member party.
Due to the limited field of view, and the fact that you can see a full map only by using a spell or plotting one yourself on graph paper, exploration is much more tense than in your average console RPG. You can look around with the second analog stick, but monsters can easily sneak up to attack you from the side or back if you aren't careful. Additionally, the reaper can appear out of nowhere as a black mass of chattering skulls to possess one of your party members and increase the stakes of your expedition.
Because the entire dungeon is interconnected, you'll have to progress from one floor to another to advance. Shortcuts do exist, but throughout the game you'll delve deeper and deeper into the darkness. Like the overall tension, the fear of the unknown is amplified because you can see only what's directly in front of you. The decision of whether or not to return to town with a transfer potion or to press forward in hopes of finding one more rare treasure can be a difficult one indeed.
Enemies will appear as roaming symbols. The shape of the symbol indicates the sorts of enemies you may face, while the color indicates whether or not the monsters have noticed you. It's possible to gain a first strike by approaching an enemy from behind, but with limited accuracy.
Before the fight officially begins, you'll decide what each character will do during the next turn before you confirm and begin the battle. Different character classes have access to different spells and abilities, such as the priest's holy talent to dispel the undead and the samurai and ninja's ability to stun or kill an enemy with a critical strike. After you've input the commands, you can sit back and see if you made the right choices.
A large factor in battle is related to the level of trust within your party. Based on the personalities and alignments of your party members and your decisions as a leader, each character's level of trust in you will rise or fall. Selfishly turning a deaf ear to someone pleading for help or slaughtering friendly monsters will earn you resentment from good characters but will stimulate those who are evil. Based on your party ranking, you'll have access to coordinated attacks called allied actions.
Allied actions are multicharacter techniques that will give your party the edge in battle. With proper usage, allied actions can let you take on advanced enemies far above your level or bulldoze minor enemies you've long outgrown. There are several categories of allied actions including offensive, defensive, spell, and assisted. Among the many allied actions are double-slash, which is a powerful simultaneous attack by two characters; deploy, which will let your party scatter in case of a powerful breath attack; and spell cancel, which will let two characters in the back row snipe an enemy spellcaster before any damage is done. There are eight levels of trust and many more allied actions. Only the most carefully balanced parties will reach the highest levels, but many of the most useful techniques can be learned at intermediate levels to ensure the game's balance remains intact.
Since you see your enemies only on the battle screen, and all attacks are made from the perspective of your character, the combat in Wizardry doesn't exactly lend itself to flashiness. Many of the special attacks and allied actions feature good camerawork and use effects such as a nice photo-negative flash or motion blur, but the most you'll see is a weapon swinging at the enemy. Spell effects fall noticeably short of breathtaking and can be a bit underwhelming at times, but you do get an idea of how powerful a spell is by how it's represented.
Fortunately enemy animation is a strong point. There is a respectable variety in types of enemies, and each has complex animations for footwork, running, attacking, casting, and anything else it can do. Animations include minor demons perpetually performing a diabolical dance, bosses sporting impressive multihit attacks, and death animations, such as a sorcerer's staff rolling out of his lifeless hand as it hits floor--all of which give a bit of spice to the unavoidably repetitive business of slaying monsters.
Visual variety is quite good from floor to floor. Even though each level has a distinct theme, it's relatively easy to discern one spot from another and effectively navigate. The objects and enemies within the levels are unmistakably from the 128-bit era. Orcs, dragons, and flesh golems alike are made up of a sufficient number of polygons and feature nice texture work. The level design itself is also appropriately varied and challenging.
Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land boasts a well-scripted, well-executed story that stays present throughout the game. In the midst of dungeon crawling you will continually find yourself running into fellow adventurers, and each one has something unique and new to say. These chance encounters really help to spur you forward and break up the occasional feeling of tedium that comes from hacking and slashing through endless waves of monsters.
Even upon entering the first of three randomly generated floors, you'll find a rival group of adventurers that challenge you to see who can kill the most monsters before reaching the stairway. Added to this are quests you can undertake at the tavern, which are often intertwined with each other and often relevant to the central plot. You can gain experience, rare items, and even new allies by completing these tasks, but they are completely optional.
While the story basically progresses in a linear fashion as you conquer each successive floor, you are allotted a large degree of freedom. Unlike some RPGs, Wizardry isn't quite as draconian about class changes and alignment. A character can change his alignment or class by releasing the magical power within certain items or purchasing a magic orb. You can also switch out party members anytime as long as you're in town, but be careful, as this can affect teamwork.
Some aspects of the game may seem simple compared to recent installments of Wizardry on the PC, such as the rudimentary formation system, a limited selection of races and classes, and rather primitive means of carrying items and equipment (one item takes up one slot regardless of its size). Nonetheless, the game shows a definite reference to its source material and is quite worthy of bearing the name Wizardry. The allied action system is truly innovative--one of the best-implemented systems of its kind--and, along with the skillfully told story, it gives Tale of the Forsaken Land ample depth to match its presentation.
Despite the general high quality of production, there are a few irks. The somewhat slow and undocumented process of creating magic stones really requires a pen and paper or a photographic memory to keep track of the different combinations of materials. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that although you can create your own characters--and if you like, your entire party--you'll miss out on a lot of interesting dialogue from the original characters tied to the story. One last note: Beware, characters can be permanently lost.
Even considering these minor shortcomings, Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land is easily one of the best PC-style role-playing games to ever grace a console. Sirtech and Atlus fans alike will definitely want to see this interesting take on the series, and those raised on console-style RPGs could find themselves enjoying a different style of gameplay if they give themselves the chance.