Are you itching for a game that punishes players for failure in a fashion that MMOs rarely do–a truly almost-hardcore aspect? How about rushing into dungeons, crawling over ruin and skeletons, dodging traps, and blasting through zombies and slimes–but at the same time, there’s the risk of ultimate death of losing your character and all your gear. This is Sony Online Entertainment’s Wizardry Online.

As an MMORPG, WO’s introduction of the hardcore aspect of ironman death sets it aside from many action-RPGs and puts some real risk to death. None of this run back to your corpse or resurrect at the nearest save point. Some real fear of loss is involved.

Otherwise it’s a fairly standard MMORPG with elements that fit many other games SOE released this game in late January 2013 and had Gamespot develop it. It was developed and released initially in Japan and is based on the Wizardry series–thus why this game is so nostalgic, in that Wizardry was released in 2001 and reflects much of the older dungeon-crawler solo gaming aspects.

The game has been out a month or more so let’s take a look under the hood!

Graphics and sound: Nostalgica-tastic with some pretty good music involved

The graphics of Wizardry Online feel just a tad dated, perhaps a decade out of place in character models and environments–although they’re technically good looking, the way that the game is put together is a real nostalgic throwback to single player dungeon crawlers of the 1990s. This is lampshaded by the fact that the game starts with an animation that looks a lot like very early dungeon crawls like Might and Magic’s Xeen series (in fact, there’s a small portion with just wireframe walls sliding past.)

My bias here is that the game doesn’t run very well on my machine (even though it’s a high quality graphics card with a powerful gaming processor.) The game stutters through animations like a strobe and the rendering–while nostalgic–causes a particular pull on the eyes at odd angles. As a result, it really screws with my vision and leaves me with a headache. This might be a problem of suspect drivers or a disagreement with my video card, but it really changes the nature of the game play.

The environments in this game are all dank. Of course, this is to be expected–it’s a dungeon crawl–in fact much of the game is split between two activities: hanging out in town with other players (an interesting and vast city filled with random characters) and spelunking through the chokedamp of crumbling ruins filled with traps and monsters. One problem that persists is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between some enemies and the rocks (say slimes) although some like zombies I can pick out due to their silhouettes.

Overall, the graphics feels really primitive, especially how the characters move. This is an imported game and while it was released at the end of January 2013, it feels like it’s over a decade old in its total display technology. Add to that the visual problems caused by the rendering engine on my computer and I can’t play this game for more than an hour at a time.

The sounds and music in this game are quite excellent. Much of this game is not voiced (in fact none of it is) this is part of the nostalgia quality in that most every interaction is read in slowly rendered text. There’s a soft click as each section is moved to as a sort of narrator’s prompt. Attacks have the standard strike noise, traps click and explode, and there’s the usual swish and zing with wifty magical powers.

What I really enjoyed was the ebb and flow of the musical track. At first I was treated to a piano verse with a lot of melodic interplay. That was quickly replaced by an ethereal track using low tones and different musical imprints in dungeons to instill a sense of claustrophobia–and, of course, when something saw me, the music changed to lively “dangerous” music. (More than once, I realized I’d been spotted by that music change.)

Gameplay: This is a spelunking dungeon-crawl with hardcore permadeath

From the get-go, I know that I’m looking at an Asian-import action-RPG–although it has a lot of nostalgic elements by calling back to dungeon-crawling solo games (as I described in the graphics section.) The entire opening of the game is split between a series paintings of a bar and then a scripted scene of adventurers running away from a giant four-armed monster–add in a legendary knight named “Zero” recognized by his blue armor, and you’ve got the standard Asian-RPG opening.

There are human, elf, dwarf, gnome, and porkul (a halfling-like critter with a jewel on their forehead) all of whom have specific attributes that change their stats. The stats themselves are adjusted by the player using “bonus points.” The attributes effect what works well

Players are given a Dungeons & Dragons-like system that allows them to choose an alignment (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) and between four classes: Cleric, Mage, Theif, and Fighter. Alignments have an effect in game–presumably for spells and traps–but they especially change who clerics can call to for spells. I went with an elf mage who came equipped with a dagger, a flame-arrow spell, and a poison spell.

The game’s interface also feels slow and somewhat primitive. The general movement is WASD, number keys trigger skills, and equipment is gathered from the inventory in the usual way. It’s also possible to “lock on” to a target with the otherclick mouse button. This is all things that most MMORPG players are already used to. Nothing to report here.

The rest of the game is describable as a sort of limited action-RPG. The spelunking allows for grouping with other players to struggle through dungeons and kill monsters. But there are traps. They can be lethal or they can be annoying (such as sleeping gas). Some traps hit just the player, and others can hit other people in the party.

Also part of the game is criminality: it’s possible to steal from other players and to kill them. Doing so means that a player slowly becomes a “criminal” marked with red glowing eyes–at a particular level of criminality the player will be attacked by town guards when spotted and hauled off to prison. This morality system is touted by the game, but I didn’t see it in effect.

One big element of gameplay that needs to be discussed is permadeath.

Upon death, players become a ghost (or soul) that must run back to the last save point they were at, these save points are statues. At a statue it’s possible to be resurrected–for a fee. This is where premadeath comes into play: it’s possible that resurrecting will fail. Currently, it’s hard to tell what changes that chance, but when resurrection fails the character is forever dead.

Once forever dead the game destroys everything the player was wearing at the time, equipment, consumables, wonderful glittering relics gained along the way–even cash shop items will be destroyed.
Now that’s a level a hardcore rarely seen in MMOs.

Freemium: Premdeath even affects cash-shop items

Wizardry Online is a free-to-play game that uses SOE microtransaction currency to allow players to purchase items from the cash shop. The contents of the cash shop level fairly closely with many other free-to-play games and this develops the freemium aspect of the game; however, it’s not what sets WO apart from other free-to-play action-RPG dungeon crawls…

The premadeath part of the game does.

As it stands, cash shop items are not exempt from destruction when a character dies permanently. That means that while these items are useful in preventing that death, there’s also a chance that upon death they’ll be lost forever–of course, I believe there’s items that reduce the gross chance of premadeath. This will likely drive players to spend more in the cash shop to prevent losing in game items that they worked to grind up against danger and risk–as well as those that freemium players paid for in the cash shop.

This aspect–that cash shop items are not exempt from destruction–adds an interesting edge to the mechanics of the game. It also helps reduce the likelihood that cash shop items approach a pay-to-win threshold.

Conclusion: Perhaps this will have a strong draw for some, but not me

As in the graphics section I described my bias here as a first impression is strong: I wouldn’t recommend this game. The graphics and rendering generate a difficult-to-play game and while it has all the hallmarks of a game of its genre. The added element of risk of premadeath and criminality make this game worth exploring–if not potentially rife for griefing.

This game is too cheezy even for me. The humor in the game is based around terrible B-movie fantasy aimed towards an Asian audience and in some ways that also feels a lot like something that makes it interesting; but having to read text and constantly be locked up trying to follow quest lines became tedious.

I’ve only been able to play four hours of this game and with only a single character so my experience is extremely limited–but I’m not recommending this game to anyone who isn’t ready to wade through a bit.

SOE has an interesting game here, but I doubt that it will catch on with American audiences very well due to these deviations from the usual things that do sell. If you do like the game, you’ll have to tell me what you got out of it and I will use that when I revisit it later.