Saturday, September 19, 2009

PS2 look - Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land

Back when men were manly and slimes were slimey there was the Wizardry series. Aside from being one of the most influential RPGs of all time Wizardry also practically created the dungeon-crawl genre. The basics are simple to understand. There's a town troubled by evil forces so the player puts together a party of six characters from various classes to tackle a massive dungeon filled with beasts, traps, and puzzles to hopefully save the day. Over the years sequels, spin-offs, clones, and all manner of similar titles would make their mark in the RPG world. The year 2001 marks the release of the last Wizardry title before Sir-Tech closed their doors. This year also marks the US release of Tale of the Forsaken Land, one of the few Japan-developed Wizardry games to see our shores. While Wizardry 8 took the series in new directions Forsaken Land stuck to the basics but offered up its own slew of differences.

The Kingdom of Duhan was once peaceful but that all changed after a disaster that nearly wiped out the entire population. Now all that remains are survivors who live in fear, adventurers seeking fame, glory, or good karma, and the remains of the castle which hold many horrifying secrets. A hero without a past arrives at Duhan seeking answers and they can only be found in the depths of a dungeon that wants little more than to consume the soul of every living creature foolish enough to wander inside. It's a traditional tale with many shocking twists and reoccuring characters whose lives are affected by the hero's presence. 

The game progresses much the same as similar titles. There is the single town, the single massive dungeon, and the tile-based movement. As soon as the player steps into the dungeon things become much different. While early games consisted almost entirely of walls and doorways the dungeon of TotFL is designed to resemble an actual location instead of just a maze. There are inside and outside areas, variations of walls and floors, and everything else that helps make a dungeon feel developed. While the maze-like qualities persist there are a variety of setpieces and unique objects that lend each floor personality. The next major difference is how enemy encounters are handled. In the past almost all fights were random. Here the monsters actually wander the halls and contact with them will trigger a battle.

The wandering monsters are very much a part of exploration in this edition of Wizardry since learning how they move and how to approach or avoid them is necessary to survival. Each wanderer consists of a ghostly form in the shape of a creature such as a bat, a spider, a humanoid, and so on. The shape determines what the player can expect to fight as humanoids are likely to be orcs, soldiers, ninjas, or even giants. The bats can be all manner of flying creatures or even simply just very large demons with wings. There's no set pattern for the wanderers as they will move and change direction at random. The game has a habit of not playing fair as frequently monsters will take up spaces the player needs to go, group together so the player may have to fight two or more battles in a row, and they'll even turn red and chase the player down if need be. Safe-spots in this game are rare and monsters will even go through doors if they feel like it. To further complicate things how a monster contacts the player can have an affect on the battle itself. If a monster manages to catch the player from behind not only will they get the first strike in battle but also the player's rows will be reversed. This means the fighters get moved to the back while healers/mages get pushed to the front, and since most melee attacks target the front this is a very bad thing. No matter how the player approaches a wanderer this never leads to their rows getting reversed though rarely the player can get a first strike of their own. Again this game is not fond of playing fair.

Combat itself starts off very basic. At this point the player has two other melee-based attackers and a healer so battles are very cut & dry. There's no real strategy aside from slashing things until they fall over and healing when necessary. Before long however the party system is introduced. After getting a tutorial the player is able to build a full-fledged six character party. They also have access to Allied Actions. AAs are the meat of Tale's battle system and it is only by using them effectively will the player survive. How an AA works is that two or more party members will work together to perform a specific task. For example two front-row party members can perform a double-slash which strikes a single enemy for double damage. Two back-row party members can use an AA that allows them to protect two front-row party members from melee attacks. All AAs are governed by a party level system which determines abilities by the loyalty of each party member. Raising loyalty is as simple as winning battles but it can also be raised by performing deeds that suit the party's alignment(Good, Neutral, or Evil) or through specific tasks like learning spells or disarming traps. Party levels take quite awhile to raise but they are very necessary to learning the strongest AAs. Enemies are also capable of using AAs so it's best to respond in kind.

What's interesting about Allied Actions is that most of the time each encounter can be handled through using a certain combination of AAs. Let's say there's a battle with a row of Ninjas in the front. Ninjas are capable of insta-death attacks so keeping them from performing melee damage is imperative. These ninjas are backed by a few mages who will pelt the party with spells so the player should use an AA that counters spells. The problem here is that using either AA requires two back-row party members so both can't be peformed. There are ways around this and other situations and once the solutions are figured out it becomes very easy to breeze through many encounters without so much as taking a hit. The AAs are the player's primary means of both offense and defense. On that same token however using AAs and backing up party members not protected by them with spells or other variables is just as important. Thankfully it's not usually that complicated and must encounters will be handled without a sweat.

Despite the AA system death is never far away in the Forsaken Land. In fact at times he just might come out and chase down the party. Depending on the location and time the Reaper himself will appear with the goal to possess one of the player's party members. The only way to get rid of this guy is to leave the current level but since that's rarely an option usually somebody will simply end up possessed. This status effect can be very dangerous since if the party member in question gets killed they will turn to ash. In Forsaken Land there are three levels of death. Being dead isn't too bad as the corpse is still around to be easily revived. Ash is another story entirely since if the revive fails the party member will be lost instantly. In fact while in a possessed state a particularly devastating attack could destroy a party member entirely, leaving not even the equipment to be handed off to a new recruit. 

Unlike most other RPGs Forsaken Land isn't friendly about saving the game. While temporary saves can be made in the dungeon the only saves that matter in case something goes terribly wrong are made in town. Shortcuts crop up over time to help the player get back to where they were quickly but for the most part whatever boss that did them in is still quite a ways away. That means having to run to wherever it is they were at least while dealing with whatever encounters they run into along the way. While potions are readily available to return the party to town in case things go sour it doesn't take long to realize what the game is actually doing.

Progress is always held back by fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Everything that happens in the Duhan's dungeon is done in order to provoke FUD in the player. The dungeon, the wanderers, the battles, and the reaper don't mean much on their own. It is through a combination of them that the player finds themselves to be in over their head and retreating to recoup. While this is fine and all going back is not moving forward and that's no way to see the end now is it? Thus in order to succeed the player must deal with the fact that the game simply does not want them to win and that means going for long stretches of time without the comfort of saving, the knowledge of whatever rare item they've uncovered, and what remains of the spells and items they've used to keep their party in a relatively healthy state. Even if everything seems to be in order and the player is handling all of the encounters smoothly it could just as easily end through a bit of bad luck or one too many bad decisions. It's probably all just in the player's head but that just gives the game more to work with. All of the wandering creatures make sounds while they move and in some areas where there are lots of doors opening and closing it can be quite maddening just hearing all of these sounds come together. One other thing that bears mentioning is the fact that the player won't level up and gain stats unless they go back to town to rest at the inn. Sure it's another incentive for going back but again it's at the expense of moving forward. Leveling up doesn't require much in terms of grinding so it's probably best to save that sort of thing for when it's absolutely necessary(like for a tough boss).

To round out the game and give the player some insight into the people of Duhan there are a variety of quests to take on. These usually involve finding somebody or something and are really quite simple. The rewards are worthwhile at least and they're a nice break from the constant sense of impending doom that the dungeon evokes. Then again some quests can trigger especially tough encounters that the player might not be ready for. Regardless the player must complete the quest if they accept it, as they can not be repeated if they are canceled. In the end though none of it will really matter because even after the land is saved another dungeon will open up, one seemingly without end and filled with beasts ever more dangerous. If nothing else the Forsaken Land tests the player's will to continue even when no reward or even a sense of accomplishment awaits them. 

So why put up with it? Well I think it's simply an excellent game. The mechanics of exploration are handled astoundingly well as moving around wandering monsters is very smooth and the dungeons allow for some deviation if it means avoiding a fight. The battle system is open to a few exploitable AAs but for the most part it's extremely well done and offers some variety for players willing to try new tactics. The dungeon design in particular is spectacular. While there are a few randomized dungeons the other eight are extremely well done and feature lots of secrets, traps, and even a few hidden sub-quests and special scenarios depending on the time of day. Learning new spells at first is a bit of a hassle as everything requires materials but before too long a material shop can be used to maximize spell output. The only real complaint I have with the game is that battles can run a bit slow at times since Forsaken Land opts to use full animations instead of still pictures for all of the enemies and attacks. While this can be impressive and atmospheric it can also make some battles drag a bit. Others might not be fond of the way the game handles locks and traps. In order to unlock or disarm something the player must input a series of button presses in a few seconds. At first these start off really easy but they can get pretty complicated depending on the level of the thief or ninja. I guess it's just as well though is that at least in some cases this Wizardry title is more action-oriented than any other since exploration happens in real-time.

Most importantly I think Forsaken Land really nails the importance of a great dungeon crawl. The most important aspect is always the dungeon and through a unique method of exploration and top-class level design this game provides one of the best around. Even non-fans of Wizardry-esque titles should give this one a look as it does enough things differently to create a unique and fantastic experience. Unfortunately fans of everything that Wizardry 8 brought to the table will be left out in the cold. In fact fans of the older Wizardry titles might not be able to get into this one. Maybe they'll be better off with The Dark Spire or something(which I'll look at eventually). It's also unfortunate that the quasi-sequel to Forsaken Land never saw release in the US. If you want to give it a go just look for Busin 0: Wizardry Alternative Neo at your friendly neighborhood import store. Be warned though it looks like a far more advanced game and I bet they balanced out the more powerful AAs. Maybe this is just the kick in the arse I need to start learning Japanese. 

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