Is it controversial to say that I like Wizardry even though I have now gone on record as disliking both Ultima and Akalabeth? I sure didn’t anticipate this myself, at least not for the first entries in the game. I expected Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord to be as bothersome as my time with Ultima, and walked away pleasantly surprised.
This is a straightforward dungeon-crawling RPG. Players are at a castle, there is a maze belonging to the titular mad overlord nearby, rally some dudes to your cause and go conquer it.
The game has you create a party of six brave adventurers, spanning the basic classes of fighter, priest, thief, and mage. All of these can be either a human, elf, dwarf, gnome, or hobbit, which grant you different starting stats. Players also pick an alignment for each character and should keep in mind that they can’t mix good & evil heroes in the same party. Once set up, players can purchase gear at the shop and head into the dungeon.
This process may sound easy, but it can easily take up to an hour before you actually get into that dungeon. Character creation is fun, but cumbersome to do, especially on consoles. Clicking together every character takes time and you might have second-thoughts and redo some of that work. There is also no shared inventory, so each character has their own money and limited inventory, meaning you either need to send them into the shop one-at-a-time to purchase their goods, or pool all the money together, buy everything with the party leader, and then trade the equipment around.
Party management continues to be a bit of a pain in the behind throughout the game, but before we get to that, let’s talk about the meat of the gameplay.
The Maze underneath the town is the domain of Werdna, a mage who stole an amulet from the mad king Trebor. Your party is one of many who answered the call of the king to delve into the maze and slay Werdna. Yes, you are working for the titular mad overlord, and it’s questionable if helping him is really the right thing to do.
The Maze is presented in similar fashion to Akalabeth, though later releases of the game nicely upgraded the visuals to make it more appealing. It’s a 10-floor labyrinth that you proceed through by finding ladders downward and finding important items needed for progression. Unlike Lord British’s games, the maze in Wizardry is pre-built and consistent across every run. This means it’s actually worthwhile to map the place out and developers had more room to implement cool environmental features, secrets, messages, and special encounters.
The game offers both pre-set encounters as well as random ones, which play out as turn-based battles with an initiative system. There is always a chance of suffering or performing an ambush, granting the sneakier party a free round, but after that combat runs through each other. Each turn you can choose to attack, favor defense, cast spells, or attempt to flee. However, an enemy might act first and take out one of your guys, you might attack and be immediately counter-attacked; battles are dynamic and come with some nice flavor text for each move.
Random encounters are also not by definition bad. You might run into other adventurers or monsters just trying to chill in their dank caves. You can choose to still attack these and get some sick loot, or let them be. Adventuring parties may also decide to attack you and, at that point, all rules are off. Combat awards you with experience points, gold, and, sometimes, treasure chests. Take my advice and bring a good thief. They can inspect chests for traps really well and disarm them with a much higher chance of success than all your other dudes.
The game is tough, however. A fresh level 1 party is pathetically weak and might not even have the starting cash to equip everybody with some good early-game gear. Combat is high risk and it’s easy to get lost, even on the first floor. You absolutely want to make a map or have one with you from a strategy guide, especially when traps may randomly teleport you or you end up in areas where vision is clouded.
Consequently, it feels really empowering to make progress. By the time I was ready to take on the second floor, I was reliably making it through combat without so much as a scratch. My improved stats and decked out adventurers made a notable difference in combat, with especially the mage and priest becoming much more useful when they get to cast more spells without resting.
Regrettably, I do have to say that Wizardry indulges in a few too many player-unfriendly moves. Firstly, you only recover health through prayers or sleeping at the inn in town, which aren’t readily available. There is also little in the way of loot and enemies drop a paltry amount of money upon death, making adventuring an impoverished career path. To sleep or buy new items, you need to backtrack back up the entire dungeon to get into town. If you just want to to reset your spells & prayers, then a nap in the hay will do. For health regeneration, you need to pay 10gp per character, pet hitpoint. On the first floor, I was lucky if a fight with five dudes gave me more than 20gp.
You also need to sleep to level up, which presents a second issue: the game is aggressively RNG-heavy. Already when you’re making a character, the amount of stat points you get to divide are randomly decided and can make the difference between a character ending up useless or being able to start at level 1 with one of the special elite classes you’d otherwise have to work up to. When you sleep to level up, the only certainty is that you’ll get some HP. Everything else is lol so random.
I have literally had characters level up and lose points in EVERY stat. You can level yourself into uselessness and none of it is within your control. I actually ended up bricking my save, because I attacked a party of “friendly undead” and that turned my best character evil. You can’t mix evil and good characters in a party, so my only hope to salvage him would be to make a new, party with neutral-evil characters, explore the dungeon for random encounters, hope on the slim chance that they are friendly, and let those escape until the game decided to restore my alignment.
I decided to make a new character instead, but then ended up with the other two fighters paralyzed and not being able to afford the church’s steep 400gp cost per man to get them back in fighting shape.
Despite all that, I did enjoy my time with Wizardry and would consider revisiting it sometime and seeing it through to the end. The maze has novel lay-outs for it and I like the progression and exploration that the game offers. It does need some work, though. On the top of my wishlist would be less-randomization in the level-ups, more balanced loot to offset the cost of adventuring, and either more ways to effectively backtrack through the maze or a way to rest up in the dungeon, perhaps through hidden campsites.
Despite its flaws, Wizardry upped the anté for dungeon-crawling gameplay and even managed to wow console gamers with a dignified port to various home consoles.