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Wizardry Empire (Game Boy Color) artwork

Wizardry Empire (Game Boy Color) review


"The start of Starfish's lineage of the Wizardry side-stories."


The importance of Wizardry in both western and Japanese RPGs cannot be overstated. The creators of Ultima, Bard's Tale, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest have all cited its influence. In Japan in particular, Wizardry had a profound and direct influence of games designers of the 80s. While Sir-Tech could barely get later entries in the main series completed, licensed derivatives of the series exploded in the Japanese market.

There have been more remakes of the original Wizardry on Japanese home consoles than on any other platform. These were not low-quality cash-grabs either. Robert Woodhead, one of Wizardry's creators, on multiple occasions called the Famicom version of Proving Grounds the best incarnation of that title. Remakes on the SNES, Playstation/Saturn, and Gameboy Color were even better. Detailed pixel art, a fantastic soundtrack, and baroque style give Japanese-made Wizardry games a flavor and distinction not found in the main games made by Sir-Tech. By most accounts, Sir-Tech was a poorly run company, so the only way to really tap into the Japanese market was licensing the name to other developers as they did with the Famicom version of Proving Grounds. The first unique Japanese derivative, Wizardry Gaiden by ASCII, started a long lineage of Wizardry off-shoots that were exclusive to Japan.

Despite deriving from a computer game, Wizardry is very much at home on a portable platform. The claustrophobic screen, dark colors, and sparse soundscape enhance the dread of every trip into the dungeon. By the end of the Gameboy line of systems, there was a total of nine side-story games with the Wizardry license.

While Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge took the series away from the traditional town-dungeon loop, Japanese Wizardry games embraced and refined it. By 1999, Sir-Tech's US branch was already closed and the Wizardry name moved to a shell company named 1259190 Ontario Inc that licensed the name out to other developers. Wizardry Empire was born out of such licensing to Starfish SD, the company that would later go on to publish the Wizardry-like Elminage series.

By this time, Wizardry in Japan and Wizardry in the west were becoming very different series. Bane of the Cosmic Forge gutted and rebuilt the series whereas Japanese games focused on refinement. Wizardry Empire draws new features from the Gaiden series, the remakes of the original trilogy on Gameboy Color, and new elements added to the mainline Wizardry V. It also adds some new features unique to this game, making it worth a play by anyone looking for a refreshing take on the classic series.

Like all Japanese-developed Wizardry games, you start in a town. You don't need a tutorial: create your character, dive as far into the dungeon as you can, get out alive, and repeat until you defeat the big baddie at the bottom. On the surface, that's what you'll get. Once you dive a bit deeper, you'll find the nuances that make Wizardry Empire stand out.

The initial classes (and even their class requirements) return from the main Wizardry series, with the addition of a new Archer class that has a low barrier to entry. A key change to Empire is that the back row can be useful for more than just slinging spells. There are plenty of medium and long range weapons available to all classes, and lowly thieves can utilize Wizardry V's hide/backstab mechanic to perform melee attacks from the back row. Thieves also have a 100% chance to disarm traps, and are needed to find and open doors in the dungeon, making them more than just dead weight.

Sex was added as a character attribute, with males and females getting a bit more strength or vitality respectively. Ninja's are now exclusive to males, but mixed parties mixing good and evil characters are now allowed without any weird workaround. Empire also introduces several new prestige classes in addition to the aforementioned Archer. Avenger's get status causing techniques and the ability to cursed items without ill effects (you can finally equip the famous death ring!). Musashi's get the ability to dual-wield most weapons, including swords like the Cusinart. Kunoichis, a female exclusive class, gets some ninja-like abilities, and Valiants get some exclusive healing abilities, including the only mass cure status ability. The abilities of these classes are not transferred during character changes and you can only access them with special items not found until late in the game, making them only really viable as final classes.

The most interesting new class, by far, is the summoner. Throughout the dungeon, the player will find summoning circles that allow summoners to make pact's with monsters. These cannot be directly controlled, but will persist between battles after they are summoned. Later summons like BeyondThing and ShadowDragon provide fantastic offense, and since summons are treated as a separate group for targeting purposes, they end up diverting a lot of damage and (more importantly) party-wiping status effects.

The dungeon this time is thirty floors. That's more than the first three Wizardry games had combined. The first dozen are not particularly difficult. After floor 20, they start introducing terrible things like spinners in dark areas, unavoidable traps that scale in damage, anti-magic areas that drop all your buffs, and other non-sense. Spinners and teleporters are particularly befuddling as stepping on one no longer shows a flash to indicate that something happened. If playing the optional maniac mapping option, you'll only get coordinates and a direction. If playing this way, some of the late game floors will be brutal to a level of Wizardry IV. Thankfully, the normal mapping option allows you to display a graphic map that shows traps and even the destination of teleporters.

Like other Wizardry games, the difficulty is brutal until you can start changing classes. Once you have malor to teleport anywhere in the dungeon at will, you can start changing classes, getting spells on all your characters, getting HP to explosive heights, and other powergaming nonsense. All but one special encounter is repeatable and there's lots of unique loot to find, including the unique prestige class items so there's a lot to do if you're into this sort of thing.

Another new feature here is recruitable characters. These are characters you find hidden in the dungeon that you can add to your ranks. Despite having a name and 2 sentence explanation for being in the dungeon, they aren't developed--in fact, you are free to change their name and even their class, so they are essentially just pre-defined normal characters. Despite this, these characters are significantly more powerful that your own party when you find them, including a high-level ninja.

Unfortunately none of these recruitable character use the new classes. This is a shame because despite the good ideas here, they are some poor implementation details. The new prestige classes, for example, are unlocked by items so rare that you likely won't find them until very late in the game. By that point, many of their unique skills are no longer useful. Having access to summoners, for example, much earlier would completely change the dynamic of the first segment of the game in fantastic ways. Another example is a set of faeries found in the dungeon that are intended to let you teleport between two floors. By the time I found the item to unlock that feature, I could freely teleport around the dungeon anyway with malor.

Another issue is the bugs. Many items found in the game data simply cannot be acquired in the game. I'd imagine there are many monsters in that state as well. I encountered one issue on the final floor where a teleporter exited on another teleporter without activating it, which really confused my mapping efforts. The fan translation patch also seems to introduce its own issues. Some dialog (especially for recruited characters) is garbled and cannot be read. I also encountered 1 or 2 times the text glitched during battle and I needed to reset. The translation patch makes some questionable editorial changes, including changing the font for text and changing the spell names from normalized Bane of the Cosmic Forge style names (like "flame") to classic Wizardry names ("halito"), despite not doing this in the original Japanese.

The best feature of Wizardry Empire, however, is the scarcity of information about it. GameFAQs has no walkthrough and you're not going to find a let's play on Youtube. Going into this, I had no idea how many floors the dungeon would have or what I would encounter. This thrill of uncharted exploration, debating if you have healing left to open an unknown door, watching in horror when you see a game over screen and permanently lose your party--these are things you need to experience to understand and no series can do them like Wizardry. The elements of a great Wizardry game are here, but the pieces are forced together in some places that blemish an otherwise good game.

Wizardry Empire got another sequel on Gameboy Color (which also has a fan translation) and another on Playstation. Its publisher, Starfish, would later go on to publish the Elminage series, which drops the Wizardry license but continues the Empire line of games in spirit.

Oh, the story is a thing that exists. You're stopping an evil emperess. Or protecting an emperess from demons. There's a Cthulhu.


dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (December 30, 2020)

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honestgamer posted December 30, 2020:

This feels like a really solid primer on the Wizardry series, something a person might profitably read before exploring games himself. I keep meaning to get into Wizardry, and even have the no-longer-super-recent digital one on PS3, plus some Elminage stuff. But then I get distracted by more recent games that clearly owe a great debt to Wizardry. Thanks for sharing this take. I enjoyed it!
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dagoss posted December 30, 2020:

I was turned off by Labrynth of Lost Souls (the PS3 one you mentioned) due to the titlating art. Elminage is a great little series though and feels like an evolution of classic Wizardry.

I'd personally always recommend Etrian Odyssey over Wizardry. To me, map making is the most important part of wizardry and EO makes it very approachable without removing the elements of danger and mystery for new players. Of the classic series, I think Wizardry 5 on SNES is the most approachable. On the PC side, Wizardry 8 has just phenomenal character building, though you no longer need graph paper.
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overdrive posted December 31, 2020:

I liked the history bit, as I had no idea that Wizardry's lifespan was so convoluted. I owned the first game on the NES and was obsessed with it for ages (whether it be bad luck or what, I have no idea, but umpteen hours of play and I never got one single item that allowed you to turn a character into a ninja). And I bought the Gold version of VII and was amazed at how much the formula had changed from the old "town/dungeon" way. And not necessarily in a good way because that game just seemed brutally tough the instant you stepped away from a couple early-game zones, it took forever to gain levels and you really didn't get that good of gains from them.

I think I made it up to the land of the Munks and their dungeon before deciding that the game wasn't worth the trouble -- just a lot of frustration and it seemed pulling teeth to have any real progress to go with that frustration. The old-school Wizardry games might have had the frustration, but after the first couple hours of running around the first few rooms of the first level and then back to town until you'd gained a few levels and gotten some spells, you'd be able to start making respectable progress.
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dagoss posted December 31, 2020:

Wizardry's history is way more complicated that this too. Sir-Tech was sued by Wizardry's original creators for unpaid royalties and Sir-Tech moved operations to Canada as a result (and put the Wizardry name in a shell corporation). They also tried to set up an Australian operation to make Wizardry 8. If you google Wizardry Stones of Arkham, you can find a lot of insane claims by a guy named Clive Blakemore, an australian programmer that worked with them, about SirTech and how incompetently run it was. These were all dismissed as absurd rumors until artwork from stones of Arkham was found in a storage unit in upstate new york. Blakemore had a bunch more drama around his own game that was kick-started and vaporware for like 20 years.

Wizardry's co-creator Andrew Greenberg is now an IP attorney, which he said was a result of his experience with SirTech, so he could protect devs from publishers doing things that SirTech did. There was more drama too with D W Bradley, the programmer/designer behind wizardry 5, 6, and 7.

I heard that some company that makes mobile games or something recently bought the Wizardry name and released a teaser for a new one. I guess the brand still has some nostalgia value.
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EmP posted December 31, 2020:

I remember you -- that guy from that thing! Good comeback review.

The last Wizard-like I played was Elminage Gothic, which was a real ball buster. They're games I often want to get back into, but remember the massive time sinks they become. Hasn't stopped me from hoarding a large pile of them up on Steam, though.
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dagoss posted December 31, 2020:

Elminage Gothic is also developed by Starfish (some elminage games were developed by Opera House and published by Starfish). I played Elminage Gothic first. Playing Wizardry Empire sort of feels like playing a prequel to Elminage (in the same way FF2 is a "prequel" to SaGa). I'm not sure if they lost or chose not to use the Wizardry license, but I really enjoyed the direction Elminage took. Their official website's last update was in 2016, so it looks like they aren't really active anymore.
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overdrive posted January 01, 2021:

EmP

I'm like that with those big AD&D styled RPGs. I've tried and abandoned Baldur's Gate II twice (the second was more due to the computer I had it on crashing for good) and so I bought Divinity Original Sin for my computer. And was so hyped for it that around when I started it, I also bought Divinity Original Sin 2 and Pillars of Eternity for the PS4 and also got Icewind Dale for the computer and downloaded Torment: Tides of Whatever via PS Now.

And then I struggled to maintain any momentum playing Divinity 1 and eventually shelved it around the mines of mandatory stealth with the Death Knights. And now have all these other super-in-depth RPGs staring at me, with me not knowing if I'll ever want to play them. Yay...

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