Review: Wizardry Online (Windows)–The Heroically Hardcore Dark Souls of MMORPGs

Wizardry Online makes doesn’t mix words. It is out to kill you. Permanently. Its home page proclaims WO as the “most hardcore fantasy MMO ever created,” and sports the tag line “Free to play die.” Its intro video features an adventuring part being wiped out with a lone survivor running for his life. The first two dungeons include dying NPCs with dire words of warning. Wizardry’s bark is a thunderous roar that shakes the very foundation of online gaming, but does its bite live up to it?

While it may not fulfill the “ever” part of the claim, Wizardry Online certainty IS one of the most intense and challenging dungeon romps available today. How so? Ah, where to start… No regenerating health, no regenerating mana, deteriorating weapons and armor, spells and specials are easily interruptible, dungeons are full of traps; treasure chests are full of traps, leveling needs to be done at an inn or magic fountain, character stats can go down as well as up when leveling, PVP is always on after a ‘noob’ grace period, gankers can steal your stuff, and the tutorial dungeon killed me. Twice. Oh, and poor or unlucky players are subjected to the possibility of character-rerolling permadeath. Also, the game is hard. All that said, WO tempers its laundry list of lulz with with smart design that keeps the game feeling fair and ensures that its most dramatic features are kept in check.

 

Before delving into the dark depths of Wizardry Online’s most intriguing features, we should perhaps discuss what exactly Wizardry Online is. WO is an unabashed dungeon hack. You’ll build your character from the standard fantasy races and classes, assign points to attributes, and pick perks from a skill tree. Town hubs provide shops, services, quest givers, and delightful billboards featuring bounties on player-killers as well as daily and monthly totals of the dearly departed. Speaking to a gate guard sends your avatar to the publicly instanced dungeon of your choice where the real action occurs.

More than most MMORPGs, WO plays very much like a third-person action game. Those that cringe at the likes of Terra being considered ‘action oriented’ will be pleasantly surprised by Wizardry’s combat. After drawing your weapon, you’ll lose the ability to run while gaining a suite of combat moves. Dodging, blocking, and weapon strikes are all handled in real-time and without cool-down timers. Right-clicking a foe or pressing the tab key locks your character on target. Shields can only absorb so much damage before needing a break and blocking only works when struck from the front. Tactical maneuvering is tense and interesting as Wizardry’s claustrophobic, trap laden dungeons do not suffer from the bizarre gigantism found in most modern MMO environments. You'll need to master these intricacies to make it very far in WO as many of your opponents sport beefy life bars, attacks that cause special effects like poison, and above average AI that will see them fall back to launch ranged attacks or flank around chronic blockers. In addition to the challenge presented by the average baddie, WO’s dungeons sport a rather aggressive respawn rate. This is not an MMO for impatient players. You’ll be making several trial sorties into any particular den of nay’er-do-wells to learn the ways and means of your enemies before gearing up to take on the final challenge in earnest. Suffice it to say, grouping is all but mandatory in the later dungeons.

So, you’ve geared up, grouped up, learned up, leveled up, and conquered Wizardry’s darkest depths of danger. You win, right? Nuh-uh. Now’s the time to wonder if your fighter buddy is thinking about sticking a broadsword in your back, fight the temptation to do the same to that loudmouthed mage standing next to you, and brave a face to face confrontation with WO’s most devious, demented, hysterically brutal enemy of all: The dreaded treasure chest. Yes, the treasure chest. These bastard boxes from the blackest bowels are armed with everything from a direct damage that might kill you, deadly poison gas which will probably kill all of you, or the fiendish zap trap which WILL kill you twice over. Yes, really. So how many times are you going to tempt fate trying to up your disarm chance before biting the bullet? Hurry up, those monsters you just killed will be respawning soon.

As we’ve touched on briefly, player-versus-player combat is always on in Wizardry Online and only boss arenas feature private instances. Additionally, killers are free to take unequipped items from their vanquished prey so keeping your spare cash and gear in your shared account bank is a good idea. While the majority of the game’s population tend to walk the straight and true, there are some players that have chosen the PKing path of the criminal. Exactly who these individuals are won’t come as any great surprise. Criminals in WO are clearly marked with a red (or purple in extreme cases) aura following their wrong doing. Town guards and entire guilds of goodie-two-shoes have thus far ensured the ganking population is kept under control, but the second major dungeon can get a bit rough as new players are allowed their first taste of open PvP. Still, as with the other challenges in Wizardry, cautious progress will steer you clear of most potentially fatal encounters. Especially savvy (re. cowardly) adventurers can stick to lower populated channels or even log out to change instances at the slightest sign of glowing red people. On the other side of the coin, players branded as criminals open up a new whole new way of life most Wizardry players will never experience. Criminals are open targets for anyone, making grouping even among like-minded individuals touchy due to the potential of friendly fire. The crime and punishment system also allows for additional achievements such as running through town as a marked man or a chance of being thrown into prison, complete with the possibility of busting out. Or being shanked in the shower. Those wishing to give up the life of crime can lay low in the unpatrolled Twilight Alley slums until the tint of their wicked ways fades.

Perhaps Wizardry Online’s most surprising feature is the inclusion of character-erasing, very permanent death. While certainly an attention grabbing feature, the chances of actually losing a character to this fate is rather slim. Upon being slain, characters appear next to their body as a ghost, leaving behind their easily looted corpse. In a backwards twist on the corpse runs of old, a ghost’s task is to sprint its incorporeal butt to the nearest Guardian Statue. You’ll be immune to all the traps and traitors of the cruel physical world while in this ghost form. Naturally, this being Wizardry Online, there is a whole new peril to face. You are not alone in this realm of undeath. Ghostly demons called Walkers wander the ether to prey upon lingering souls. Get grabbed by a Walker and you’re starting over at your corpse once again but with a penalty to the chance of being resurrected successfully. Folks in a hurry (or, again, cowards) can take the easy out and teleport to the last known statue, but at the cost of a hit to the durability of their gear. Other players also have the option to haul your lifeless body back to town for revival at the local church.

Upon reaching the Guardian Statue, church, or revive spell, players must face the Scales of Soul before being readmitted to the world of the living. The Scales measure the weight of your soul versus the weight of your death and display the odds of a successful resurrection. Factors influencing the scales include a character’s level, earned Soul Rank bonuses, having/hit by blessed or cursed items, and overall condition. Living impaired players can sweeten the deal by adding gold and items to tip the scales in their favor. Succeed and it’s back to business. Fail and your corpse will turn to ash. Once you’ve been turned to ash, a state of REALLY dead also achievable by being hit from a high damage electrical attack, you’ve got one final chance at the Scales to respawn. Fail the Scales of Soul after having been turned to ash and your soul becomes lost, you face becomes sad, and you character data becomes a long string of zeroes, never to return. Still, it will  take a few strings of bad luck before anyone needs face oblivion.

Even if the worst comes to pass, you can rest assured that your banked inventory and even campaign progress are all immediately available to future characters. Yes, in a shocking twist of mercy, Wizardry’s story progress falls under the ‘bind to account’ category. There is even a account wide leveling system, termed Soul Rank, that will provided bonuses to all the characters you create.

So, does Wizardry Online bite as ferociously as it barks? Almost. The headline features of open PvP and permadeath  imbues WO with a very real sense of tension, even fear, due to the possibility of being suddenly stabbed from the shadows and losing a character forever. Still, these features are kept in check by clever gameplay mechanics, generous newbie grace period, and a friendly user base. Where WO doesn’t mess around is the general difficulty level of the game itself. While on paper, and in name, this title may seem like a throwback to the old-school RPGs of yesteryear, yet it has been tempered with the wisdom of modern game design. While hard, it never feels cheap. It’s usually clear exactly why you died and what you could have done differently. As you learn, so shall you conquer, and that’s the real thrill. Even without the chance at being permanently killed off, Wizardry Online would be a rewarding game to play. With real death lurking around every corner, no matter how remote the chance, it is a exhilarating game the likes of which is seldom seen these days. Wizardry Online has no intentions of being a game for everyone, and is exceedingly special because of that.

Wizardry Online is available for free from Sony Online Entertainment.

2 comments :

  1. "PVP is always on"

    Annnnd you lost me. PVP ruins games. "Be as big a prick as you can until someone stronger makes you stop".

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