Platform: Nintendo DS
# of Players: 1
Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
(Note: while I'm cooling my heels and planning a new site relaunch soon, here's an old review to peruse. this previously lost review was written LONG before the PSN Wizardry games from XSEED and Wizardry Online were announced, but I decided not to alter anything mostly because I'm surprised this turned up in a folder packed with stuff I thought was gone for good - enjoy!)
Since no US publisher seems to even be thinking about reviving the classic Wizardry franchise anytime soon, Atlus has pretty much taken up the mantle of "publisher of Wizardry-like gameplay experiences" on the Nintendo DS. Some of you might be asking "Hey! what about that excellent 2001 PlayStation 2 game, Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, huh?" However, that game (great as it was) wasn't at all related to the eight Sir-Tech PC games. Other than a few console remakes of the first seven games scattered over an assortment of Japanese consoles and a few handheld version the numerous Japanese-developed Wizardry games are their own bird (and yes, it would have been grand to see them localized in English), but that's another subject for another time. Anyway, thanks to titles such as the two Etrian Odyssey games (which can be seen as spiritual successors to Sir-Tech's original games) and now The Dark Spire, developed by Success, Atlus will absolutely make you do a happy dance if you love your RPGs old-school tough yet completely user-friendly.
If you've never played a Wizardry game (or any Etrian Odyssey game, for that matter), what's here is a pure "classic" dungeon crawl with turn-based combat, some nicely designed maps, your choice of two graphic styles (more on this in a bit), some incredibly cool music and more. Success has dome a remarkable job in capturing nearly every element of the Wizardry series here from the character creation to the random points given to characters that have leveled up to the types of traps in the games deadly dungeon setting. As noted above, this isn't an easy game at all, especially if you go in expecting to be hand-held and coddled through a tutorial and want helpful hints spilling on screen whenever you get stuck. The game has a nice way of easing you into some pre-adventuring training in an enemy-free zone in order to get you used to a few things. But once you leave the safety of the town and head into the dungeon, you're pretty much on your own.
It's entirely possible for your party to be wiped out within the five or so minutes if you get careless and try to move too far into the first floor of the dungeon. A smart player will abuse that starting hallway and first door encounters to level up each party member and hoof it back to town to heal, spend skill points, buy new gear and head back into the fray for more. Sure, it's repetitive, but that's one hallmark of this style of game and hell, the higher your levels, the longer you'll survive to see some of the clever tricks and traps in store for you. Thankfully, with all the level grinding and back and forth traveling you'll do, the writing is well done and even pretty funny in spots, making the dungeon diving quite a treat.
Amusing bits aside, the game manages to be consistently compelling thanks to the dungeon design and the fact the each new area offers its own share of rewards and hazards that can make the first few trips through somewhat harrowing. One set of tiny connected rooms is basically an invitation to disaster if you lose your bearings and end up backtracking into some deadly traps or enemies that can have you wasting resources trying to defeat them over and over.What's fun about all of this is each person who plays the game will have hos or her own tales of woe and eventual victory against the odds the game throws at you even if both players follow the exact same steps. Of course, following someone's footsteps who hasn't cleared the game once is kind of a bad idea, as there are many tricks, traps and treasures lying in wait for those patient and brave enough to seek them out...
Knowing when to get the heck out of Dodge and hoof it back to town to resupply and learn a few new skills is also a big key to survival. In addition to changing classes, there are a number of odd skills that can be learned that may seem silly inside a deep dungeon (horseback riding and painting don't seem to keep you from dying any slower), but there seems to be an underlying system at work here I haven't figured out just yet. Of course, you can just spend those hard to gain points on leaning anything you think your party might need to know, but it's too tempting not to want to toss a point or two into something seemingly esoteric just to see it it changes the game.
Speaking of changing the game, another cool thing about The Dark Spire is it can be played with the beautiful modern visuals (that look exactly like Mike Mignola's work even though it's not) or intentionally retro graphics straight out of the NES era. You also get two separate soundtracks on the cart as well (and included as a bonus CD if you grab the box set) with modern and retro themes, making this a pretty fantastic little game. Sounds are pretty common overall, but the game really conveys everything through that aforementioned well-scripted text and dialog. In terms of length, this is one fairly long quest for new players and veterans alike (I sunk a good 44 hours into my first play through and still missed some stuff) and is perfect for that gamer who's looking for a hefty amount of challenge in a game that keeps delivering the goods.
So, yes indeed, Atlus has another RPG hit on its hands with The Dark Spire. It's almost too bad there are no plans to bring this game to home consoles and I doubt that it will sell well enough to rate a sequel (that drearily plain cover art doesn't help much). But hey - don't let that black box fool you one bit. What's here is quite spectacular and addictive, merging the past and present in the finest possible way. Highly recommended, but expect to lose a ton of free time once you're hooked into these dark and deadly dungeons of doom...