Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge

I don’t…. I mean….. How is…. Alright fine, whatever.

Game Name: Wizardy VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (1990)
Developer: Sir-Tech (Jagged Alliance 2, Wizardry 8, Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs)
Platform: AmigaOS, MS-DOS, SNES, Mac OS, NEC PC-9801 and FM Towns according to Wikipedia, whatever those are (reviewed on PC via DOSBox)
Categories: 1st Person Dungeon Crawler, Custom 6 Person Humanoid Team, Old Skool Fantasy RPG, Movement Grid, Turn-Based Battles, Vendors/NPCs, Deep Spell System, Sprawling Labyrinthine Locales, Dialogue via Word Parser, Traps and Loot, Punishing Difficulty, Archaic Presentation, DIY Mapping, DIY Quest Notes/Tracking, DIY Item Juggling and Stat Cataloguing, Multiple Classes, Multiple Endings (sort of)

May Appeal To: senior citizens, codgers, curators, dinosaurs, dotards, fogeys, fossils, geezers, grandfathers, greybeards, old timers, patriarchs, and those with an unusually severe computer budget. I’m kidding around but this game is really showing its age.
The cartography is quaint and amusing while epic completionists looking to export their party across the Dark Savant trilogy will want to start here.
May Repulse: anyone with eyeballs, ear holes, or sensibilities. Wizardry 6 lacks post-90s conventions and by no means should be played on its own without ulterior motive.

Comparable To: the overall feel of Wizardry 7, Bard’s Tale, and The Dark Spire. Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land, Strange Journey, and the Etrian Odyssey series are all superior versions of the same style of grid-based first-person dungeon crawling. Wizardry 8 and Legend of Grimrock take obvious cues from Wizardry 6 though have splintered off in considerably different directions. I couldn’t help but think of King’s Field and Shadow Tower as being inspired by this game despite a lack of similarities.

Learning Curve: A few hours to get a bead on the rhythm to exploration, mapping, battle, healing, note-taking, re-mapping, and figuring out what keywords the damned vendors require to progress during dialogue.
Game Length: 80 hours including quasi-essential grinding? I took longer.
Difficulty: There is real potential to save yourself into a corner or to kill/chase off NPCs that provide resurrection potions. All that aside, there is STILL considerable difficulty in determining character and equipment stats, developing a useful party, conquering droves of random encounters, manually mapping the environment, and keeping track of quests and essential locations. You’ll get your ass kicked and become lost easily.
Mastery: This would include sampling high ranking classes like the Ninja, Bishop, and Lord, as well as finding all secret areas tucked away behind hidden walls and dank corners. There are plenty of missables in this game and mastery involves min-maxing the hell out of character builds to provide the utmost domination of mobs via equipment synergy. I have no idea what the maximum level for characters is but it must be over 18 – which is akin to a walking God with very little opposition except the final tower.

Story: Possibly the most attractive part of the experience, the story of Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge is downright interesting and compelling. What starts with very humble beginnings at the stoop of an un-named castle spirals uncontrollably into a biome-spanning journey in pursuit of a power-hungry creature heading a dark satanic cult whom wields a pen that shapes reality. Kings, castles, and knights? Check. Dragons? Check. Spaceships? Check. Wait, what?

Yes, the Dark Savant trilogy is infamous for its strange blend of techno-magicry. It’s not so pronounced in Wizardry 6 (part 1 of 3) but rest-assured that anachronisms and the limitless genres of fantasy and sci-fi careen headlong into each other given enough time within the subject material. This jolly, unrestricted outlook of the holy sacramental pillars constructed by Tolkien, D&D, Dragonlance, and countless others is thrown out in Wizardry, which is easier to explain as a typical fantasy kingdom, visited by interstellar travelers. A cozy, almost flippant, affiliation with all eras in past and projected futures of the human race causes Wizardry 6 to adopt a kind of charm unique to its own telling.

I can discern from the interactive elements, setting, and art direction that there is no “Wizardry Bible” lying around on some dusty shelf that establishes canonical and detailed minutiae of this universe. I know this because the hodge podge noun gumbo of cursed goat masks, ninjas, dominatrices, Disney’s Tinkerbell, child abuse, the hookah caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, Charon the boatman, vampiric subjugation, and 1-900 sex lines are haphazardly chucked together with little concern for the proper usage of satire and consistent tone be damned! If we’re to take the game at face value, it’s an oppressive world of immortal monstrous lords, dark religious organizations, unrelenting throngs of Hell’s armies, fiery doom, and the fabled River Styk running just below the Earth’s surface…. though it’s peppered with crude inside jokes, oblivious denizens, and an unflappably light-heartedness during the most serious moments. Your characters have no soul to speak of, don’t interact with each other, and nothing in the game is tailored towards their individuality save for class or gender-specific garments. And since the environments are repeating tiles, one must solely go by the cartoony, five frame depictions of “giant miners”, goat mages, and undead samurai as the definitive resource in flavoring the monologues spoken at you with context.

All in all, Wizardry 6 comes across as a sternly serious tale populated by overbearingly sardonic sexuality and humor in a decidedly amateurish and impulsively-made patchwork quilt. And despite this [and myself] it’s enjoyably weird and keeps the player guessing about what culminates from the clumsy balance of child-like creativity and surprising doses of personality in its NPCs. Unfortunately, you will not find the answer to that query since the sudden conclusion pulls the rug out from under our characters in graceless servitude to a promised sequel. It just ends.

I only bargained for 16 of you; the rest need to go home. I’m reloading the game until you go home.

Presentation: Utterly lacking even by 1990’s standards, the graphics and audio are a prison stint with a sentence that mirrors a player’s tolerance for EGA’s 64 color palette. I’ve seen enough cyan, magenta, and grayscale sprites to choke an international fairy convention and it’s a relief to finally be done with the ordeal. Imagine, if you dare, a fantastical world of fire and brimstone, evil swamps, subterranean rivers, sandy beaches, foreboding enchanted forests, disjointed caverns, and massive castles consisting of 8 separate floors with secrete passages leading to ancient steppe pyramids occupied by reclusive tribes. Now…. create that world from minecraft blocks using only 3 textures. I’ll allow water tiles. At least character portraits and enemy animation loops are interesting.

No spoken words, unless you count the uniformly masculine grunts to be exclamations of protest. No bg music, so YouTube playlists of dungeon ambiance are required. Sound effects are your standard Duke Nukem wall-humping “OOOf” and “MMMphs” to break up the tedium of random creaks and clatter that represent undiscovered monsters, or so I’m told. Since I played on a higher CPU cycle on DOSBox to make keystrokes appear responsive and for battles to resolve this century, much of these effects increased in both pitch and intensity – madness. Pure madness. And half of these bad sounds end abruptly, as if the recording was cut mid-sample.

The draw distance is 3 tiles forward and 1 over, but only for walls since the floor and ceiling extend forever. So on top of the inconvenience of starting a new hobby in amateur cartography, you can’t transfer what you literally see onto graph paper unless you’re within 4 spaces. Is there pop-in? You bet your sweet ass there is. The framerate is essentially linked to your grid traversal rate and the DOSBox clocking is only evident when dancing/jittering sprite sequences flit onscreen like when picking a lock through flashing green squares. Pro-tip: use the ‘clock down’ hotkey when forcing doors.

The UI doesn’t fare much better. It’s forgivably ugly and utilitarian (except for the cool gargoyle banner which houses a series of underused icons) but the info isn’t even presented in a contextually relevant or reasonable way. Enemies appear in named rows but give no clue as to which are injured or have status effects, AND they shuffle around. Managing inventory is a one-way affair in which you “trade” with either a selected character’s “swag bag” for storage or with a separate character. Problems arise when you run out of slots and need to either know who holds a particular thing or how much space/weight is available on said target. Just like with everything else, this data is buried on a different screen and the player is always a mere 8 button presses away from discovering it. At least I eventually gained muscle memory for spells, movement, and inventory actions, though none of it is intuitive. (For example: “down arrow” toggles turn/strafe and there is no backwards mobility.)

Unique Features: I actually liked the risky nature of participating in the world. i.e. Fools can get hopelessly turned around, run out of supplies, seal their fate with a bad save (you only get one slot), or ill-advisedly attacking NPCs.

The game also has a neat opening mechanic via picking or forcing a door ajar. The disarming traps mini-game plays like Hangman and is a fun distraction, especially with magic users or skullduggery experts. (No pun intended.)

Gameplay: Common RPG stuff you can expect: exploration, battles, xp, leveling, statistics, spells, skills, loot/equipment, inventories, vendors, side quests, and grinding.

Despite being 30 years old, Wizardry 6 is remarkably competent and comfortable with its customized character creation and critter clobbering. I shouldn’t be too surprised since this throwback arrived in the thick of tabletop RPG’s hey-day and those same systems were being translated to the digital realm. To this day, I’m still not solid on the mechanics of individual armor pieces protecting both their body part and contribute to the aggregate defense though I’m reasonably certain that the lower the armor rating and higher the weapon rating, the better. Similarly, the various icons for statuses including stone, cursed, poisoned, paralyzed, and blind go unexplained within game. (All of which may be covered in the manual along with racial/class strengths which, alas, I don’t have.)

Characters can be a wide variety of humanoids: Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, Hobbits, Dragons, Cat People, Lizardmen, Teen Wolf, and Chewbacca, each with a variety of preferred stats and abilities. (Dragons can breath acid. How cool is that?) Classes include some staples but also elevated classes like Fighters superseded by the female Valkyries or Samurai, Thieves superseded by Rangers, Priests superseded by Bishops, Monks superseded by Ninjas, and Lords being generally confusing. Classes have stat requirements and individual strengths or affinities towards [mostly intuitive] skillsets, though everyone gains levels at class-specific intervals and in random amounts based on obscured character stats. I highly recommend a guide for character creation or at least 30 minutes of study before attempting the feat. (There are pre-made characters too.) Class-changing is possible though it’s recommended to plan many levels in advance and to stagger any shifts since the affected character resets to level 1, a significant liability until a few battles are tucked under their belt.

All classes eventually get some form of magic, whether or not it be limited or split across one of four “schools”: Thaumaturgy (Mage spells, typically aggresive), Theology (Priest spells, typically support), Theosophy (Psionic spells, typically status effects), and Alchemy (a mix of those 3 roles). Good luck finding this explicit correlation between skill name and role on the internet though. Geez, what a chore. You’re welcome.

As demonstrated, I found spell and skill labeling a bit unusual though you start to figure it out over time. Here are some more that defy intuition: Legerdemain (stealing – don’t do it), Skullduggery (locks and traps), Kirijutsu (one-strike kills ❤), Ninjutsu (hiding/backstab), Oratory (spell casting success), and Mythology (monster identification). To further confound the uninitiated, some skills develop on their own (like weapons and thief skills) while others must have points allocated to them (like magic).

Rather than fetch quests, Wizardry 6 has an interesting dependency on finding and assembling keys to a puzzle, oftentimes many hours after discovering the puzzle itself (I hope you take good notes). This has a rather old school “adventure game” appeal where you horde twine and other abstract inventory detritus whether or not you know what to do with it. For example, the instance of completing a catapult with braided monster entrails, a cog, and a heavy boulder spring to mind. (How many heavy boulders do you carry with you? – All teh boulderz before you realize what they’re for.) Another one involves putting sand in a sack and role-playing as Indiana Jones. Fortunately, used items will be removed from the inventory and you can not purposefully “drop” unique key materials. Unfortunately, there are no item descriptions and the player never truly knows when, how, and the effects of generic items once used. (If they disappear, they were a consumable or had a dwindling number of charges.) Heck, even armor/weapons can have undeclared special abilities only discoverable when “used” in the heat of battle.

About battles…. they can be infuriatingly hard. The player is frequently assaulted by 1 to 40 beasts, the upper levels of that range being especially difficult if they resist status effects or your AOE spell points are low. (Resting to recover MP can be disrupted.) Dependent on weapon type, characters may only be able to reach the front row though monsters – who shift around to mitigate the effects of sustained attacks. It’s not visually clear which monster is damaged or affected by a status so the blind fighting ends up being a chaotic focus-fire to bring swarms down quickly (overkill is ignored). Stamina is a thing, so if enemies cast spells to diminish it or you were running about the maze and exerting yourself (mentally or physically), this yellow meter can drop and result in a character being rendered unconscious. While intense, casting spells and slicing up foes is a rather imprecise ordeal and it’s never clear what the math is behind equipment capabilities or even what level of Poison Cloud or Cure is required for the occasion.

The dungeons are insidiously well-designed. Maybe it’s the same effect of eating slower to savor food but mapping out the various switchback corridors, secret wall panels, and nested staircases amid pools of absolute darkness allowed me to fully appreciate the effort that went into the layout and flow of the individual areas. It’s a pure shame that a greater tileset could not be implemented though the identical visuals across all biomes contributed to the “labyrinth” effect, for sure. It’s one of the more memorable aspects.

Armorclass = 6 (+0), pink -1, 3, 3, 3, 5, 4 . I spent 120 hours in this world and still don’t have the foggiest notion how to interpret those stats.

Additional Comments

  • Although it can be pooled at a vendor, characters individually carry gold. But why?
  • Vendors can be stolen from, or killed, or leave of their own accord due to plot/story.
  • Using a word parser to “communicate” with NPCs is a fantastic idea that isn’t properly implemented until Wizardry 8. The lack of options makes it frustrating here.
  • Modern purchases of the game don’t come with the essential manual.
  • Save scumming is clearly not frowned upon. The random difficulty spikes prove this.
  • Bad party composition can screw over the player if attention is not paid.
  • Front page icons don’t exist for all statuses. Fear, Weakened, or Silenced can persist between battles without you even knowing of the affliction.

What I Liked: Deep positional combat of affinities, crits, summoning, skills, devastating magic abilities, and the rewards from min-maxing and party management. I like that not all equipment can be used by each gender, class, and race and that there are barriers of entry to the higher classes, as well as nuances to effectively using Ninjas than meets the eye. My party was customized to a high level and grown to meet my whims – which I’ll be soon porting over to Wizardry 7/8.

It was nice to have control over DOSBox’s clocking like a superpower involving time, and I enjoyed holding ENTER to have combat whiz by. I avoided the Mouse option and navigated inventories and mazes with increasingly adept Keyboard speed. I enjoyed the challenge, paper maps, and the retro feel of dismissing modern amenities so as to be reliant on my wits and stenographic skills -give or take a few internet checks. I’ve successfully beaten the game without making dumb enough decisions to be permanent.

I enjoyed the quirky, sexualized humor and the gratuitous multitude of bare-breasted enemies – Amazulus, mermaids, demon chicks, faeries. I’m a perv, so sue me.

What I Disliked: One of the endings is achieved by saying, “I love you” to a specific boss – this is wildly out of character. I have a bunch of UI quibbles like spell selection scrolling downwards instead of displaying in the available area. When fleeing, you run off cliffs and into traps or ping pong between monster encounters. So many Death and Lifesteal spells instakill party members – no protection against it, and there is no easy way to recover or continue the battle. (I was level 18 and still getting one-shotted.)

Everything involving the inventory is a chore: trading, swag bag, equipping, analyzing, comparing, purchasing, etc. It is possible to activate offensive items and waste them if no enemies are present. I didn’t know what half the items were and using “assay” doesn’t help much – only reveals who can hold/wield it. Is it a quest item? Can I eat it?
[insert Galaxy Quest  Rockwell meme] “YOU DON’T KNOW!!”

Resurrections – the spells, items, and potions are extremely rare or expensive. Combat is tough and maybe too punishing if a character dies. The dialogue parser sucks. I hate nearly all of the jagged graphics, putrid colors, and technological limitations of DOS on the whole, with the exception of a few of the character portraits and enemy designs. This repulsiveness only built up with time and I never truly warmed up to it.
Yes, I’ve been spoiled by games with three decades of advantages.

Glitches Experienced: Game specific or not, I had frequent DOSBox freezes and crashes that related to how often I hit buttons at the higher CPU frequencies. For example, holding down “Enter” to auto-battle at blazing clock speed caused a hard freeze on at least 30 occasions.

Hours I Played: 120 – This is probably an excessive amount.

My Personal Reaction: I did not enjoy myself though this was a crucial step to getting a single party through the Dark Savant trilogy. Still, I’m proud to have tackled the challenge and completed it with very little assistance. I take heart in knowing that there aren’t as many gems I missed out on in gaming’s history and that the industry moves in at least two different directions: AAA titles and Indie developers respectively. In the very least, I expect this minimalistic genre to escape obscurity by Japanese developers resurrecting the concepts of map-making and its unyielding difficulty. The Etrian Odysseys and Elminages of the world will carry the torch of self-abuse!

Noob Tips: Don’t attack passive NPCs. They sell stuff and may leave unexpectedly anyways. Start with a bard and play the lute every round to freely cast Sleep on a monster row. In general, the NPC dialogue parser can be defeated by saying “rumors” multiple times and then repeating nouns back with “what”, “who”, and “where” modifiers. When changing classes, make sure to do it purposefully and have at least a point in each skill before transitioning. Save often; load often. Don’t overwrite a valuable save file unless you’ve copied it to another folder or are positive the party can handle it.

Depth and Replayability: Medium gameplay depth as far as RPGs go.
No replayability unless your first attempt was intended as a learning experience.

Suggested Value: $5

Where to Buy: GOG, Steam

Subjective Categorical Ranking:
(Platform capabilities are considered for Graphics and Sound)
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                                | poor  ||  bad   || average || good || great |
            Fun Factor |█████████
Unique Gameplay |████████████████
       Controls & UI |█████████
         Story & Lore |████████████████
  Graphics & Style |████
    Sound & Music |████
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Sure, sure, of course. But can we talk about your green companion here for just a sec?

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