1992 – Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant

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I didn’t finish Wizardry VII on my first try, or my second a few years later. That first attempt was right after it was published in 1992, when I was still relatively wet behind the ears when it came to computer games, having not played anything really big. Wizardry VII was a revelation, a massive, sprawling behemoth of a game that made it easy to get lost in, both in terms of its geography as well as its more opaque mysteries.

The second try was an attempt to brute force the game by sheer will, even though I wasn’t enjoying myself all that much. I just wanted to beat the damn game. As the internet (and its easily available guides) were still a year or so away, I was stopped by some of the more obstructionist puzzles. As they say, third time’s the charm.

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Almost entirely the brainchild of D. W. Bradley, Wizardry VII continued the transformation Bradley had started with its predecessor. The roots of the Greenberg/Woodhead Wizardry can still be seen: movement is by discrete steps from square to square – the building blocks of the world and its dungeons.

Battles are still phase-based and mostly randomly triggered, apart from a few fixed ones. A few new spells and skills were added, pick-locking and trap disarming were overhauled but, overall, the core system remained the same.

What Bradley ingeniously did was to transpose this refined dungeon-crawling formula to a huge, handcrafted open world, long before this was a thing.

In Wizardry VII, you have an entire planet to explore. And unlike most games, you’re not alone on your quest. Various other factions have joined the fray, including the eponymous Dark Savant and his robot legions, in a wild scavenge hunt for the Astral Dominae – a powerful ancient artifact.

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Your objective is to find various map pieces spread all over the planet that in theory should help you solve various puzzles and reach your final goal. Though in praxis some of these puzzles are almost impossible to solve without the help of a guide. This is not helped by a keyword-based dialogue system that makes it easy to miss crucial hints. And there’s no journal, so expect to make a copious amount of notes.

The game has six major factions you can ally with, but much more interesting are rival parties made up of individuals from those factions. Like you they roam the planet, collecting map pieces, befriending, antagonizing and fighting each other – or you – giving an overall sense of urgency and of a living game world.

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To facilitate this new mechanic the game introduced a Diplomacy skill and expanded NPC interaction options, allowing you befriend them and trade items and information. That said, while I love the concept of rival parties and expanded interactions, their implementation are far too insubstantial and fickle to be more than an illusion of world reactivity.

Yet, while it may not have been great, the game tried something new that remains novel to this day, and it improved the experience most of the time.

Wizardry VII also adds auto-mapping, though it’s skill-based and nearly useless without training. A more subtle addition are the new ground tiles for paved roads. There is only one road in the game and it connects all major locations. Together with the map it makes orientation easy and yet feels much less condescending than modern quests compasses, mostly because it still was possible to get temporary lost or have that feeling of exploration and true discovery so often lacking in modern games.

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Since Wizardry VII takes place on a different world than the first six games, another change comes in the new races you meet and the more or less creative monsters (two-headed tigers, walking octopi, etc). Where the previous games were pure fantasy, the seventh part has a strong science fiction influence.

The sum of all these things is an experience that feels both familiar and novel at the same time. I loved discovering and learning all these new elements on my first try, and yet at the same time I loved the familiarity of playing an old-school Wizardry with a large and extensive over world.

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On my third attempt to play it, armed with a better understanding of the game mechanics and a way to get around the more annoying puzzles due to the availability of solutions on the internet, I plowed through the game and enjoyed every second of it.

Wizardry VII is a game that invites exploration. It wants you to map its world exhaustively and look into every nook and cranny. Like all the games in the series, it expects you to know how to build a strong party, but accommodates a lot of different builds and approaches. It contains an endless number of battles that can sap your energy, and yet it always makes you come back for more. Jörn Grote

 

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