Saturday, 25 August 2012

PS2 Review: Wizardry Tale of the Forsaken Land

Many gamers don't know that, since the early 90s, Japanese developers have been creating their own Wizardry series of video games. Based upon the oldest western Wizardry titles, the Japanese Wizardry series has grown homogeneously, offering a serious and dedicated experience without the levity of its western kin. Over the years, only a handful of Japanese Wizardry games have been commercially released to the western audience; one of these is Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land(W:TotFL) for the PS2.

W:TotFL takes place in the cursed and winter-locked kingdom of Duhan. An event called "The Flash" has destroyed most of the kingdom and plunged the survivors into depression. The player's mission is to explore the broken labyrinth under Duhan, uncover information surrounding "The Flash" and recover your, conveniently, lost memories. Duhan is a sad place, cut off from the world by a snow covered wasteland, charging into a monster filled dungeon for wealth, fame and answers seems like a good thing to do.

Players start the game with character creation, choosing a race, class and distributing stat points. After the first level "tutorial" of the game, players are given access to six slots for player-made and NPC characters. One of W:TotFL's best features are its NPCs, most have their own quirks, story and personal goals. On the other hand, specific player created parties can be tailored for a preferred play-style or class discrimination. Wizardry contain both basic (Warrior, Priest, Thief and Sorcerer) and advanced (Bishop, Samurai, Ninja, Knight) classes. As with all RPGs, a good mix of fighters and casters is the best recipe for success.

Queen's Guard - Kulgan

Duhan's village and labyrinth dungeon are the game's main settings. The small village features an inn(Missions and NPCs), a temple(Healing and Resurrection), lodgings (Level-Up), a store(Equipment and Spells) and guild(Party Customisation). Village interaction typically involves accepting quests at the inn, selling excess items at the store, resting at the lodgings and then trying to travel further into the labyrinth. Duhan's labyrinth is the business end of the game, filled with monsters, traps and treasure; players must traverse the labyrinth without succumbing to its belligerent fauna.

The labyrinth is traversed in a tile-based, 3D first person mode; players also have access to a sprint mechanic, useful over medium distances. Hostile encounters take place inside a 3D battle system, taking players out of first person view; very reminiscent of the Final Fantasy battle systems. Unfortunately, going into a battle system for minor battles really slows the game down; traversing the first "economic/tutorial" level of the labyrinth quickly becomes a chore. Luckily, other sections of the labyrinth aren't so poorly utilized, every few levels offers a quick-return access point to the upper levels. Town services should be used liberally during the adventure, as character death and status effects are a common occurrence.

W:TotFL isn't a casual stroll. Players, especially newbies, shouldn't run through the dungeon and expect to survive the next floor, as monster difficulty is more logarithmic than linear. I advise players to take their time, level-up, equip characters, discover class abilities and test party endurance. Once a player is used to the monster scaling, certain sections of the dungeon can be safely skipped.

To curb the difficulty slightly, W:TotFL introduces a party based mechanic called Allied Actions(AA); based on party "Trust", AA can quickly turn the tide during difficult battles. AA features both offensive and defensive abilities, involving a few members or the whole party. AA allows players to breeze through weaker hordes and severely cripple boss monsters.

Sadly, W:TotFL's magic system is probably its greatest flaw. The magic-stone system involves mixing monster organs to create and advanced existing spells. Magic is strong, but en masse magic-stone creation is poorly implemented and party magic power duly suffers. In contrast to the magic system, W:TotFL's NPC characterisation is well crafted and genuinely sells the setting and story.

Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land pulls no punches and rewards tenacity with a pretty decent story. If you are a hardcore gamer, and have a dungeon crawling itch, then W:TotFL is definitely worth blowing off the dust on the PS2.


*Warning: It's possible to have characters completely destroyed, when playing - no resurrection.

 Note: There is a Japanese-only sequel called Busin 0:Wizardry Alternative NEO.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Review: EU3 Chronicles

Europa Universalis 3(EU3) is the latest installment of Paradox Interactive's flagship grand strategy series. Spanning world history from 1399 to 1821, EU 3's gameplay covers the Middle Ages to the Georgian Era. EU3 offers players a choice of over 300 separate nation states, from across the world, to lead during the game's timespan. Will your nation suffer or flourish under your patronage?

Nation select screen, with advised starting nations
Before starting, players choose a historical period and a nation to play; further game options must also be set before the game begins. Game difficulty is generally based on the starting nation's strength during the time period a player has chosen; some states are historically strong and others aren't. A nation's strength can be measure by wealth, military, size, trade options, political and geographical advantage. Players can tweak their game experience (easy, medium, difficult) by the nation they pick.

The game takes place on a scaled world map featuring seas, rivers and mountains. Nations are split up into provinces and each province may be industrialised by its owner. Knowledge of the world map and provincial features is vital for a successful campaign. Invading and occupying enemy provinces, from sea or land, is often the fastest and most satisfying way to end a war. A fog-of-war clouds the map over neutral and hostile territory, useful for hiding standing armies.

Over the course of the game, your nation will, hopefully, become stronger, richer and much larger; even world domination is achievable with the smallest of nations. It is up to the player to set their own national goals or follow in-game mini-missions. The player has a range of tools available to grow their nation: conquest via direct war and annexation; diplomatic hegemony via vassal states; or inheritance through royal marriage. Making money through trade, tariffs, taxes and production allows players to develop their nations and invest in technological progress.

It isn't always smooth sailing through the Dark Ages and beyond. Hostile neighbors, the Holy See(the Pope), the Holy Roman Empire(HRE), trade embargoes, wars, alliances, spies, discovering the new world, the reformation/counter-reformation, holy wars, revolutions and much more will test your nation's mettle. Fortunately, other nations are also affected by strife, making them easier targets for conquest or diplomatic influence. A game mechanic called "infamy" is the cost for aggressive expansion, too much infamy and your nation will tear itself apart.

EU3's historical setting and absorbing challenge often leads players into learning or reading about historical events, historical figure heads, national unification, the reformation, geography and much much more; I believe this is EU3's greatest value, which is also shared with Paradox Interactive's other series(HoI, Victoria, etc). If you don't like something with EU3, you can always mod it in or out; EU3 is one of the most moddable games available. Modding guides and tips are available online and at the Paradox Interactive forum.

Make no mistake, mastering EU3 takes a decent amount of time. Knowledge of history and geography helps, and increases enjoyment of the game. New players may get frustrated, but choosing a suitably strong starting country allows new players to test the ropes without much hardship. Intermediate and expert players often end up playing the most difficult or complex nations in a given era. EU3 starts nations in historical context, but players and the AI inevitable turn their game into an ahistorical "what if" scenario. Japanese invasion of Europe in the 1500s - go for it.

Players, who are time-poor, might find it difficult to fully immerse themselves into the game. Gamers who are looking for instant gratification will not find it with EU3. If you are a history buff, if you like learning and don't mind taking time to master a game, than EU3 is the game for you. EU3 is a benchmark for grand strategy games and is often a gamers first foray into the genre.

Multiplayer is available over internet or LAN, and it's very fun with friends or relatives.

EU3: Chronicles is available online at Amazon, Steam or the Paradox Interactive website.

-Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.