I woke Saturday morning with the dull headache of Friday overindulgence. There was a grayness to the world, a lightly throbbing strobe. I felt like I was living in the aftermath of a camera flash. I rolled from bed and stretched out the cricks and cramps in my back and neck. With the grace of a zombie, and much of the smell, I pulled a black t-shirt from my closet and put on the jeans from the day before. I was vaguely aware that I had plans for the day, but the tighter my mind constricted around them, the more they evaded me. A lungful of early summer air invigorated me and the edge was dulling. Into the driver’s seat I slid.
The sun was cool but bright; I blinked a few times. With an enthusiastic growl, my car came to life and I was on the road. When I walked into Lowe’s, I was buffeted with recirculated air and the smell of plastic overwhelmed my olfactory sense. Polite half-smiles and cobalt blue formed the backdrop to the hardware department as I browsed. I was looking for a set of metric bolt drivers to remove the air filter cover on my motorcycle. After finding a ratcheting screwdriver with the proper bits, I made my way out of the store and back into the cleansing sun. A day of wrenching and being covered in the internal fluids of my engine awaited me. This was my day of rest.
As a young teenager, I filled my room with the trappings of early nineties role-playing ephemera: thick hardcover books with Jeff Easley paintings on the front, pamphlet thin soft cover booklets from boxed sets, dice in shapes only a mathematician could love, graph paper, and elaborate maps on poster-sized sheets of paper folded into 8 Ã‚Â½ by 11 inch panels to fit into boxes. I was, unsurprisingly, a lonely youth. A lifetime of gallivanting across the country with a gypsy’s abandon had left me with no skill or enthusiasm for making friends. Most of my leisure time was spent reading the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Harlan Ellison and riding my bicycle, until it was stolen by a fat, blonde, curly-headed thug named Doyle. I still hate you, Doyle.
The most pure release I had from my solitary existence was to read the various sourcebooks I had needled my mother into buying me and imagining myself into the worlds they described. Rare were the instances that I actually played the games as written, preferring the company of my own imagination to that of my fellow RPG players. This is not to say that they were bad people, per se, but that I demanded, and still do, a certain minimum of social competency to deal with people. A base understanding of grooming, hygiene, and the relationship between eating and speaking shouldn’t be too big a hurdle, but it often was. In this sense, I was the Emily Dickinson of Greyhawk.
One day, my father read an advertisement in the newspaper that interested him. Our NES had died an ignoble death, the spring-loaded game lowering mechanism finally gave up the ghost and we were NES-less. He would never admit it, but I knew he missed the system more than my brother and I did. Dad didn’t play video games; he was more like the copilot in a rally car. Dad would goad and advise us through the various mazes that were prevalent in those days, occasionally going far enough so as to map the levels on graph paper. His maps were amazing. To this day, I still have a thick binder filled with maps he drew of Wolfenstein 3-D.
The ad he answered was for an NES and a pile of games. Ultima, Final Fantasy, Swords and Serpents, and Wizardry were games I had heard of, but never played. When the sailor he bought it from dropped off the system and the games complete with boxes and manuals, I was in a sort of sugar shock, overstimulated to the point of paralysis. These games changed my life, and my video gaming tastes. Suddenly, I could play an RPG without my piles of maps and books, without the strange people who hovered at the edges of pen and paper RPGs. I found a solution to a problem that defined my social life. I was free.
As the decades advanced, the state of the art in RPGs changed dramatically and lamentably. The games I loved, with custom characters and dungeons full of strange monsters, were lost to increasingly linear generations. A year ago, Final Fantasy XIII completed the lifecycle of the RPG as I knew it, dashing its aging head against the rocks of linearity, reducing the dungeon to a hallway. I took my hat off to honor the departed RPG and moved on with my life. Then, just like the diminutive Emmanuel entered the life of former NFL star Alex Karras, Wizardry: The Labyrinth of Lost Souls came into my life. And then came you, indeed.
What I wanted from this Wizardry was what I have wanted from each iteration of the Wizardry series: simple combat, massive dungeons, and enough plot to keep me plowing forward. If you are going into a Wizardry game expecting a plot on par with the finest fantasy novels and a cast of characters that will stay with you the rest of your life, then I am guessing you are high on some sort of pharmaceutical. W:LOLS is not the video game equivalent of “ËœA Song of Fire and Ice’, it is pure dungeon crawler. The writing that is present is simple and to the point, with a plot thin enough to write on a playing card. This would sound like a negative to some, but it is a refreshing drink of Mountain Dew for me. Exposition is fine in a game I am playing for the plot, like L.A. Noire, but far too often plot is crammed into every orifice of games that do not need it. Brevity is a sign of assured confidence, something this game has in spades.
Like the writing, the combat system is simple enough to be a sign of genius, or at least, skill. The party of six is divided into two rows. The front row fight the enemies directly, but also take damage directly. The back row are more limited in their function, but are just as vital. Dropping a well-placed spell or potion into the fray is a rewarding experience, for sure. Each class also has a special skill, the usefulness of which varies widely. Strategic thinking is rewarded – charging in without a game plan is penalized with death.
Of course, before you drop into a dungeon, you need a party. You create a character, selecting from one of five races, each with a male and female representative. More than anything, this determines the portrait of your character, so picking purely on aesthetics is fine. A piece of advice, keep entering and exiting the creation screen until you get more than 30 bonus points to assign to your stats. This lets you create one of the more badass classes like the Lord and Ninja. With your character in hand, a trip to the Guild in town lets you pick from the pre-created party members and creating your own. Once in your party, the characters are yours to equip, re-class, and take spelunking.
The art is very D&D by way of old-school anime. Every character has big eyes and little clothing. The male characters are sturdy and manly and the female characters are classically pneumatic. The character portraits line the flanks of the display and have a couple of incidental animations. The Brady Bunch opening credits come to mind, actually. The monsters your intrepid crew encounter in the dungeons are much the same, the only action on screen being the flashes of scratches and slashes from attacks. Thing is, everything is smooth and fast and does exactly what it is supposed to. I don’t need to see my characters lunge forward and swing their over-sized weaponry.
The dungeons, which are the real meat of the game, are minimalist. Each dungeon has a signature wall texture, which is repeated throughout. Due to the step by step movement, the most common view is of a wall on each side and an inky blackness in front. Solid, workmanlike, and simple are words that come to mind. Everything is just so professional and clean.
This professionalism spills over the controls. If you ever do something you didn’t intend or want to do, it is almost entirely your own fault. The controls are as stiff and refined as a Ducati, each command as easy to execute as the Instructions page describes. When a game is as simple as this, the controls have to be perfect, something this game has nailed.
The voices are occasional and superfluous, but at least they kept the original Japanese voices. W:LOLS has the standard issue score, which I summarily turned off and replaced with the Sword. Trust me when I say that jamming some Black Sabbath and Hawkwind, preferably on vinyl, provides a much more suitable soundtrack to your dungeon crawling exploits.
Before you rush off to buy this very old-school, very well made dungeon crawler, there is one thing we need to discuss. Yes, it is time for the difficulty talk. This game is not hard, by Wizardry standards. By Wizardry standards, this is a very average difficulty game. Thing is, that is like saying a girl is average on a supermodel standard. Average is only useful as a descriptor when you have a frame of reference. This game is hard. Rock hard. Diamond hard. If saving frequently, advancing carefully through throngs of cruel monsters, and scoring treasure at a ponderous rate sounds like a good time, then this is probably the game for you.
Balance: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Final Score: DECENT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary:
There is old school and then there is positively primitive. Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls straddles that line tightly. There are admirable qualities, for sure. There are ten main characters to beat the game with, each with unique story points, and the combat can be tense as you delve deeper into dungeons. The graphics and music are just so-so, good enough to make the game tolerable but certainly not enough to win converts or create lasting memories. For those who long for the graph paper dungeons of their adolescence, this game is a fertile field of battle, laden with bloody fruits. For the curious and the dabblers, W:LOLS may be to staid to warrant a second glance.