From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus

Phantasie III shared the ad spotlight with another SSI CRPG, Realms of Darkness. Though it didn’t feature the kind of heroic art that Phantasie and Phantasie II boasted with their own, individual ads, it still captured the essence of the series.

SSI’s Phantasie trilogy came to an end in 1987 with the release of the Wrath of Nikademus. Nikademus, the Dark Lord whose plans had met defeat in the first and second games, has survived to finally confront his enemies in his final chapter.

Unlike the first two Phantasie games, the third one saw several major additions to its formula finally pushing to separate it further from the kind of Ultima-mold that the first two games were crafted in. The tiled overworld with its towns, roads, and forests along with the overhead dungeon view that slowly revealed itself bit by bit as players moved the icon representing their party through it.

The gameplay was essentially the same as the first two with the usual classes and Tolkien-inspired races ranging from dwarves to elves. Players could set up their own six person party with staples such as the always-popular Fighter, Priest, and Wizard builds along with Monks and Rangers before heading right into the world of Phantasie III, starting at the town of Pendragon. Or, players could transfer their veteran characters over from Phantasie II though they would be reduced to first level, arrive with no gear, and essentially start as newbies. On the plus side, enough experience is included to jump them up a few levels for a quick headstart.

The new additions to the game, however, added a degree of complexity to both combat and character development rivaling that of other peers such as the popular Bard’s Tale series from Interplay. Damage could now be meted out to individual body parts such as legs, arms, torso, and the head resulting in various degrees of injury going from a simple Injury, to an actual Break, and finally, Gone as in “I-no-longer-have-my-head” kind of Gone.

These could actually impact how effective a character could be in battle. A fighter whose weapon arm is broken can only parry until someone can heal them up with a quick spell, but if it’s Gone, that might be a little trickier to deal with if you don’t have a character with a Heal spell powerful enough to deal with it in the field. The damage system also means that a character can actually have a giant lump of hit points keeping them alive despite missing a limb, though if they’re missing their head or torso, all bets are off.

Players can also see the status of monsters in combat now as well as their own thanks to a letter designation telling the player whether they’re Sleeping (S) or actually down (D). Moving party members into one of three positions (the Back row, Middle, or the Forward area) is also possible now allowing a better degree of tactical finesse. And perhaps most important was the introduction of bows in the game. Any character, even a wizard, can use a bow.

The game also uses social classes, though these aren’t used in any kind of diplomatic function within the game. The only thing they really determine is how much extra coin you get per level as well as for they’ll be starting off with.

Levels have also been embellished with learnable skills. As party members goes up in level, they’ll also be able to upgrade one of three skills that their class comes with. As a result, it’s entirely possible to have a Priest or a Wizard fight almost as well as they can cast a spell. It’s a concept that later games, such as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, would also incorporate to give players much greater control over their characters’ destiny.

Adventurers would travel across the land of Scandor, other planes, and finally, into the Netherworld to confront Nikademus at his castle. The awesome thing about the ending is that it offers the player a chance at one of two ways to finish the adventure — on the side of good or that of evil. Nikademus will tempt the party, but it’s up to the player on how they want to win it. If they go evil, Pluto will congratulate them for their evilness. If good, it’s Zeus who will be doling out the rewards on Mount Olympus.

Wizardry IV came with multiple endings, which was in itself unusual for the time, the best one of which was hidden from all but the most determined of players. In Phantasie III, and as it would be in a few other games in later years such as Warren Spector’s Deus Ex or its remake, offered an ending based on what the player chose at a certain point as opposed towards an ongoing effort into steering the game’s narrative into a particular direction via specific actions such as in consequence-laden titles like CD Projekt’s The Witcher series.

Like its predecessors, and many of SSI’s CRPGs, Phantasie III exists in that strange grey limbo called “abandonware” as it hasn’t appeared on any download service such as Good Old Games. However, at the time, it was ported over to a number of platforms ranging from the Apple II, MS-DOS machines, the Amiga, and even over to Japan on the PC-98.

In many ways, Phantasie III was the pinnacle of the series featuring ideas that were innovative changes to the usual dungeon crawling formula of its predecessors. However, by 1987, the field was becoming much more crowded as new games from Jon Van Caneghem’s Might & Magic in ’86 to FTL’s Dungeon Master in the same year (1987) that Phantasie III had arrived in. And then there was Interplay’s Bard’s Tale series that, while not as complex from a gameplay-mechanics standpoint, was still an appealing dungeon crawler with enough combat, loot, and visual splash to attract plenty of attention.

Perhaps it’s one reason why the Phantasie series doesn’t seem to be as popular as a number of its peers despite living and breathing the same history — while it was entertaining to its fans and helped put SSI on the map for fantasy CRPGs among its many other titles, it didn’t dramatically break its own conventions until the third chapter’s additions.

Even still, while the mechanics were upgraded, the series didn’t do anything quite so daring as Richard Garriott’s ethical narrative in Ultima IV or as graphically impressive as what others were attempting to carve out into the pseudo-3D space. Phantasie III, like its predecessors, was a solid, reliable, if not revolutionary, CRPG that still offered a world of loot, monsters, and high fantasy for adventurers to dive right into. And gamers are always the winners in that equation.

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