The RPG Lounge- Wizardry II: The Knight of Diamonds (NES)

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

I was born in 1983. While I try to avoid curmudgeonly “Back in MY day…” statements about gaming when I was growing up versus now, it’s safe to say that things were different in computer gaming in particular in the 1980s. For one, people weren’t as spoiled for choice then–according to Wikipedia Ultima III: Exodus, a game released in 1983, won Computer Gaming World’s reader’s poll for Adventure Game of the Year…in 1985. For another, the style of challenge catered to was a bit different. Mapping out dungeons yourself, with no automap, was a huge portion of gameplay, and one that people flocked to, relatively speaking. And without common access to what we know now as the World Wide Web, mapping out one of these games could take months, or even years.

Finally, the concept of an “Expansion Pack”, or what would probably be “DLC” nowadays, didn’t exist in the ’80s. For the original computer version of Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (Or Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn, for that matter), you needed to import a party from Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. And not just any party–a party that had beaten, or at least was of a level such that it was capable of beating, Wizardry I (Wizardry III at least had the courtesy to not require an endgame Wizardry I party via a plot contrivance that reset your characters levels to 1, the idea being they were actually the descendants of the exported-from-Wiz-I party).

Fortunately, the version of Wizardry II I played, the NES version, was rebalanced. Due to there not being a way to transfer characters from NES game to NES game, Wizardry II NES functions as a standalone title. This is good, because it’s brutally hard if you try to play “fair”, for reasons I’ll get into later.

For now, though, the plot, such that it is. The City of Llylgamyn was protected by an artifact called the Staff of Gnilda. The Staff kept people with evil intentions out of the city, while those with pure hearts could freely enter and leave. It had only one design flaw: People born in Llylgamyn were unaffected by it, making it easy for the evil Davalpus, a Llylgamyn native, to overthrow the royalty of the city. But Princess Margda and her brother, Prince Alavik, survived the coup. Gathering the armor of the legendary Knight of Diamonds, along with the Staff of Gnilda (Idiotically, since, as mentioned above, the Staff wouldn’t work on him anyway), Alavik engaged Davalpus in combat in Llylgamyn. Alavik won the battle, but not before Davalpus uttered a curse so unspeakable that it brought the battleground down around both of them, leaving only a smoking, six-level-deep dungeon in its wake. Alavik, Davalpus, the Knight of Diamonds equipment, and the Staff of Gnilda were all gone. If someone doesn’t recover the Staff of Gnilda, Llylgamyn will fall to outside invasion.

“Someone”, of course, is you and your band of adventurers. The game allows for a roster of 20 characters total, of which six can be in your party at any one time. In the NES version’s default state (Which you can return to by deleting your entire roster, then selecting “Delete” one more time), it provides you with six characters to use, though you can, and probably will want to, create your own. Each character gets assigned a random amount of bonus points to allocate to their stats, and each class has minimum statistical and alignment requirements. You’ll want a diverse group to survive the various perils of the maze.

And survival is key, because Wizardry II does not have “save points” in the traditional sense. Should your entire party be struck down in the maze….their corpses simply stay down there. Yes, playing Wizardry II “fairly” means that, each time you die, you’ll need to send a second party down to retrieve their belongings/corpses. You can see the glaring design flaw here–if you’ve built up a second party to the point where it’s strong enough to rescue the first, it’s probably also strong enough to just continue on from where the first party left off, rendering the original group redundant. This is particularly true when you consider that to actually acquire the corpses, you need to get to them with spare party slots. In other words, the rescue mission needs to be “shorthanded”, plus you’ll need to make two trips to rescue everybody.

Less-than-total defeat offers only a small consolation. A high-level Cleric, or the Temple of Cant in town, can attempt to resurrect a dead party member. But those can fail, reducing the character to a pile of Ash. The Temple, or a Cleric leveled to effectively endgame levels, can make another attempt at bringing the character back. Yet this, too, can fail, in which case the character is lost forever. Yep. Just gone. Deleted from the game for good, with no way to get them back.

I have a philosophy about spoilers in video games. It applies primarily to storyline spoilers, though it can also be applied to gameplay spoilers. It boils down to “If your great game relies on the player not being spoiled to get the full effect, your great game may not be as great as everyone thinks it is” (See my writings on Portal, especially its endgame, for that in action). So it’s a bit odd that I love the Wizardry series as much as I do. Much of the challenge of Wizardry comes from exploring and mapping out the dungeons on your own, constantly wondering whether to push your luck to explore just a few more squares of the lowest floor you’ve reached, or whether to return to the castle. Playing it with a map in front of you is certainly an option, but it removes most of the challenge (And, frankly, throws off the balance of the game–you’re expected to wander around and kill monsters to increase your level. Remove the wandering and encounters that come with it, and you’re likely to get destroyed). Without getting too spoiler-tastic, I’ll say that unlike Wizardry I, you’ll need to do at least cursory exploration of every floor of the dungeon to succeed in your quest. Also, in part to accommodate the rebalancing of the game, the dungeon has been redesigned from the PC version.

I played through the game “straight”, meaning I didn’t reset to a prior spot when things went bad for me. I’ll admit I didn’t play through the game “blind”, choosing to rely on knowledge from a prior playthrough many years ago. This served me well, although I did party wipe once and had to create a second one regardless. This was actually my first time playing through a Wizardry almost totally straight, and it was incredibly fun. All the grinding I put myself through did little to alleviate the tension of wondering whether a battle would kill me, especially later on. Enemies have all sorts of nasty attacks–even if they don’t kill you outright, there’s the possibility of being turned to stone, or level drained–which means you lose experience, and the effect persists on leaving the dungeon. Being level drained can leave you weaker than you were even when you gain back the level.

The brutal difficulty and self-mapping of dungeons being integral to the experience means that Wizardry II is not for everyone. And indeed, I’m glad most RPGs aren’t this punishing and tense. Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for that style of game, from dungeon-crawling and mapping out manually, to wondering if I’ve pushed too far and won’t have the resources to bail myself of a battle or dungeon. And when I am in that mood, Wizardry, and indeed this game, scratches that particular itch wonderfully.

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