From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom

Sir-Tech’s ads weren’t much in the way of pizzazz or dramatic, painterly vistas, but they got the point across. For this one, Sir-Tech’s marketing essentially took the back of the box, slapped it on the page at a rackish angle, and turned it into the ad you see here.

A year after the release of the fourth chapter of the Wizardry series in 1987, the Return of Werdna, Sir-Tech rolled the fifth game to would-be adventurers in ’88 with a host of expanded features to lure new players into the Heart of the Maelstrom. This time, there was no warning on the back of the box.

It’s no big secret that the first four Wizardrys relied largely on Sir-Tech’s fanbase. The first Wizardry was where players would need to begin before setting off on adventures in the second and third games which required saved characters imported from it, or in the case of the third game, from either the first or the second game. Return of Werdna was explicitly designed around Wizardry fans and their hunger for new challenges sans imported characters, so veterans seasoned by passing through the previous games were the only ones that really had any reasonable hope of getting through it without wanting to chuck their PC through the nearest window.

But Wizardry V, perhaps in response to the competition, was like a reboot of the series. Like the Return of Werdna, it was a stand alone game — though it didn’t require players to have the battle scars earned from the previous Wizardry games to survive its challenges. This Wizardry rolled out the red carpet for new players to jump into the series, even if they didn’t want to buy the Trilogy compilation that came out the year before.

Yet it didn’t completely doff its familiar wire-frame dungeons, the Castle acting as the base for characters to launch their adventures from, or the familiar venues of the Adventurer’s Inn and Boltac’s Trading Post. It was still very much ye olde dungeon crawl with a few tweaks to add some much needed meat to its aging bones.

Players were no longer expected to remember everything from the first four games or dig out their copy of the manual that came with Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord from ’81. Wizardry V’s massive manual was jam packed with everything players needed to know, reprinting the same concepts (and colorful illustrations) while adding a slew of new ones.

Many of the old features were still carried over intact — aging characters (don’t sleep for too long), statistics, the alignment system from Wizardry IV (Return of Werdna), stats, tons of classes, and the means to whip together a six-member party ready to blob combat their way through another adventure awaited players new and old. It was still a challenging game — but not Return of Werdna levels of nerve burning frustration.

This Wizardry was kicking things off softly enough for newcomers while gently ramping the difficulty up to familiar levels of life draining, poison inflicting, and hit-point smashing violence. Carelessness was still rewarded with a quick death and a new batch of re-rolls. Players could still quit and save in the dungeon and even re-roll a new party to find “themselves”, but the danger was still there without cutting too deeply into the fun.

The new stuff included better creature graphics, pools into which party members could swim (and tried not to drown in depending on their skill), and eight, sprawling levels that broke the traditionally 20×20 grid system that defined their sizes within the previous dungeons of the series. Now corridors and “caverns” created titanic levels requiring even more graph paper to map out. This was a big game — five double sided 5.25″ floppies made up the world.

New to Wizardry was the ability to also talk to NPCs that could be encountered the dungeon — something that other CRPGs like Ultima had touched on with its parser-based approach which evolved from its (T)ransact hotkey command. Not every monster in the dungeon was out to kill the player, but the player could slaughter them if they wanted and break the quest in the process. NPCs were not only interesting to talk to and potential sources of key information, but also held keys to solving the mysteries on the way to the end.

The previous Wizardry titles up to Wizardry IV had very simple stories printed on the back of the box dressing up the hack ‘n slashing dungeon crawl into a motivational exercise in world-saving. Eventually, intros would start making the rounds apart from the neat animated pixels from the first Wizardry.

Wizardry’s third game, Legacy of Llylgamyn, had an actual intro describing the story with the help of an illustrated manual. The fourth game, Return of Werdna, was a lot more simple but described the basic gist of what you were supposed to do, though the “manual” actually doubled as a short story. Wizardry V didn’t have anything at the start of the game, but it did come with a separate pamphlet describing the mysteries and NPCs wandering the Maze.

So what’s the problem now? Cataclysmic events have begun shaking the land apart. Earthquakes, fires, dogs and cats living together — you get the idea. The fabled Orb of L’kbreth (which Wizardry III fans will recognize) is unable to stop the disasters, but the Sages discovered the truth three years earlier. A rift tearing apart reality has opened up beneath the Castle, growing in power, and the powerful guardian they sought aid from — the Gatekeeper — has disappeared.

Worse still, they have also discovered that another being, The Sorn, is the one responsible for the vortex and is the one responsible for both the Maelstrom and the missing Gatekeeper. So the call goes out for heroes brave enough to put an end to both and save the land — and all reality — from destruction.

Wizardry V’s quest is pretty lengthy considering the vast expanse of the dungeon levels and in figuring out its many puzzles, but it remains a dungeon crawling adventure at its heart with plenty of combat to sink your party into. The pools, in addition to diving deeper and deeper to find goodies (and trying not to drown your characters), also have a number of benefits to heal everyone up and keep them moving without having to return to the surface to sleep their wounds away or pay tithes to the temple for a quick fix. It’s probably the friendliest Wizardry yet.

Heart of the Maelstrom was ported over to a number of platforms such as the always popular Apple II (which by 1988 was really on its last legs), the Commodore 64 and 128, the PC-88, the FM-Towns (which received an orchestrated soundtrack) and even two consoles — the TurboGrafx CD and the SNES with a number of cosmetic enhancements ranging from vastly improved graphics to music. It would also be added, like most of the other Wizardry games, to compilations. In Japan, however, these compilations would often feature heavily enhanced versions of the games and Wizardry V was no exception. The collection, New Age of Llylgamyn (which compiled Wizardry IV and V), was released for Windows and the PSX (Playstation) as a Japan-only release. You can see what that version of Wizardry V was like in the video below.

It would have been nice to see some of those enhancements on the PC versions in some early form, too, because by this point, Wizardry was looking pretty aged compared to the competition. While its core gameplay mechanics and party building tools were still great to work with, the actual game built around them was beating Sir-Tech’s Castle/Dungeon horse to death by this point. The addition of being able to talk to monsters as opposed to killing them, setting up ambushes with characters such as the Ninja, and bigger dungeon levels along with streamlined spells still amounted to being stuck in another series of corridors.

Coming after Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight and its multiple cities spread across a wilderness, as simple as it was, the illusion of a wider world that existed outside of its dungeons added a lot to the atmosphere and introduced new ideas in the same way that Jon Van Caneghem’s vast, and incredibly dangerous, world in Might & Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum did. Interplay’s Wasteland, also released in ’88 as Heart of Maelstrom was, threw the fantasy trope out of the nearest murder hole by taking on a post-apocalyptic future with a solid set of brilliant mechanics. Sir-Tech was being left behind in the genre it helped to craft by others more than willing to take their adventures beyond just one dungeon.

Wizardry V wasn’t a “bad” game because of that — it was still a lot of fun for what it was, but the impression that I was getting is that it was becoming increasingly niche when compared against the advances everyone else was making. Predictably enough, the console version on the SNES when it was finally ported over and released in 1994 met a chilly reception — at least among the Western press focused on console gaming.

By the time the port arrived, it was thrown into a lion’s pit of JRPGs drawing comparisons against the slower, more deliberate pacing of Wizardry and its other Western counterparts such as SSI’s Gold Box port of Pool of Radiance.

The new wave of Eastern RPGs ruling the the console roost might not have had the kind of mechanical granularity that Wizardry and other CRPGs attempting to make the leap would attempt to translate over, but their simplicity and presentation worked well together within the console space influencing a generation of players. They had many of the core essentials that would forge the way for RPGs such as Enix’s Dragon Quest and Square’s Final Fantasy series, pieces that a number of developers inspired by games such as Wizardry, Ultima, and Black Onyx would continue to embellish, growing more and more sophisticated over the years in the same way that CRPGs did with each iteration.

Yet Sir-Tech wasn’t counted out just yet. It had also diversified into a few adventure games during the 80s along with an amazing action strategy game,1984’s  Rescue Raiders. At the same time, it was also clear that the genre was growing by leaps and bounds as developers continued to ride the edge of the accelerating pace of PC gaming.

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