Review: Wizardry Online brings 1981 dungeon crawling into the MMO era
At a Glance
Wizardry I, on the Apple II, consumed a significant portion of my freshman year in college. Each game in the series has been painfully addictive, deep, and compelling. The earliest games had a well-deserved reputation for sadistic brutality towards players, with it being quite easy to lose weeks of work and start over, not due to bugs or crashes, but due to deliberately limited save features. If you died in the dungeon, you couldn't load a saved game. You had to begin anew.
Wizardry Online resurrects this concept, attempting to implement a feature considered to be suicide in a mass market produce: permadeath. Under some circumstances, if your Wizardry Online character dies, they are gone for good. To lessen the blow slightly, all of your characters share a "soul," which measures the player's total progress in the game, and the loss of a character doesn't reduce your "soul rank," which is one of the most important factors in determining the ability to equip weapons or access some game features.
Furthermore, all of your characters have access to a Cloak Room (what most MMOs call a 'shared bank') where items can be stored. And most important,Wizardry Online isn't "one strike and you're out." Multiple factors determine your chance of successful resurrection, and you can increase the odds with items purchased from the game's cash store. You can even conveniently buy such items right at the point where you see your odds of successfully being raised. There are few better inducements to shell out real-world cash than the prospect of losing a character you've invested weeks or months in.
Compounding this is the fact Wizardry Online is an open PVP game. You can be attacked anywhere, by anyone. Attacking someone who is not a criminal will flag you as a criminal, and you can then be attacked with impunity. (Or with a sword, if no one is wielding any impunity.) Healing criminals is also a crime, as is stealing from anyone.
However, unlike Darkfall or EVE Online, the primary gameplay model in Wizardry Online is not PVP. The bulk of the mechanics, game areas, etc., are classic dungeons, where you are expected to do the usual round of FedEx quests, genocidal assaults, and clicking on mounds of rotting sewage in the hopes of finding a key. So you have a game built primarily around "form a party and kill some monsters," with the added feature of "Oh, and by the way, the people in your party might be sociopaths who will gut you and take your stuff...and when they do, you might be dead forever. Have fun!"
Wizardry Online is not an open world game, which also sets it apart from its rivals in the PVP niche. You unlock dungeons by doing quests, then talk to an NPC who teleports you to the dungeon of your choice. Once there, you kill monsters, die, look for traps, die, find hidden areas and solve puzzles, die, try to complete quests, die, talk to NPCs to gain more quests or hints, and die.
You will die from traps. You will die from exploding chests. You will even die from dying, in an odd way, as, when you are dead, your ghost is chased by dark spirits who try to keep you from reaching the scattered shrines which can (sometimes) resurrect you, and will send you back to your corpse (as well as lowering your chances of resurrection).
Unlike most MMOs, you don't get an instant auto-map of the dungeon. You have to find map fragments scattered here and there to get pieces of each map. This contributes to the puzzle-solving, and also to the dying.
All of the above is great. This is precisely what Wizardry Online advertises, this is the niche it has staked out for itself, and it delivers what it promises in that regard. The issues I have with Wizardry Online have nothing to do with the degree of difficulty, the risks of death, or the insane amount the blacksmith charges to repair my armor. I'm clearly putting his kids through Adventurer School.
Yet there are drawbacks to Wizardry Online. First, the interface is somewhat unintuitive, combining odd movement, tiny and indistinct inventory icons, and controls that do different things depending on if your weapon is drawn or not. Some conversations are painfully slow to display, but they convey vital information and can't be skipped. Preferences selected are sometimes not saved. These are all relatively minor, as you can get used to any interface in time, but given the plethora of MMOs on the market, many gamers won't take the time. If their first hour isn't fun, they have a hundred other games vying for their attention.
Second, it suffers from poor translation from the Japanese. Quests often contradict themselves, as different descriptive elements were clearly written by different people without coordination. (For example, in one quest, part of the text claims you're looking for a doll for an NPC's daughter; in other parts, it's the NPC's doll.) Generic text, such as "You hand over the important item," is very common. Placeholder text, use of incorrect synonyms, default strings, and so on are scattered throughout.
Third, it is seriously overrun with gold spammers and other repugnant creatures. Since there's a single town and the spammers are all standing there in plain sight, it ought to be trivial for an employee to simply delete their accounts permanently as soon as one pops up, but, they don't. There's not even a click-to-report mechanism.
Due to a really poor design decision, items bought from the item shop can be sold to other players. The subhuman sleazes who run gold-selling businesses a) Buy such items, mostly using stolen credit cards, b) Offer such items for sale for in-game gold, and, c) Sell in-game gold players then use to buy the items. So long as what the spammers sell gold for allows players to buy the items for less than the cost of buying them on the item store, the criminals profit.
This wouldn't work if they had to legitimately buy the store items, of course, but since they are criminals who are using stolen money and then laundering it via this process, it works just great for them. Sony could gut their business by simply setting a flag so that items purchased from the store can't be sold or traded, but are bound to the purchasing account. Why don't they?
Fourth, there are still significant balance, design, and polish issues to resolve. Many of the game's mechanics, such as disarming chests, or carefully edging around traps, encourage careful movement or take time— but the respawn rates on monsters are so high that you literally cannot stand still in many places without being swamped. Often, monsters spawn faster than you can kill them. (Fortunately, they tend not to chase you far.) Quests are sometimes unclear as to what you're supposed to kill. Sometimes, searching will produce an item which is purposeless until you get the quest (this is good, you don't have to then go back and search the same spot), but, sometimes, searching will not produce an item unless you have the quest, so you never know if a place you searched had nothing because there was nothing, or if it had nothing because you didn't have the quest that made it active. The aforementioned map fragments try to look hand-drawn,, but this makes them somewhat difficult to use. I love the fact you have to earn your maps; I dislike that, once earned, they're less helpful than they could be.
Bottom line: This game is not for people with a low tolerance for frustration, or who expect glowing neon arrows leading them from quest to quest, or who want a lot of bright colors and shiny effects. Wizardry Online is gritty, difficult, and brutally unforgiving. The history of MMORPGs strongly hints it will become much less so over time, so, if you want bragging rights of having played when it was tough, start now.
Of course, Wizardry Online might buck historical trends and get harder over time, not easier. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Note: The Download button on the Product Information page takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.